Population growth a threat to living standards in Africa, says University of Sussex study

Rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa could overwhelm attempts to improve the low living standards of its people, according to a new report from University of Sussex economists.

The report warns that economic growth needs to outpace population growth - expected to double in sub-Saharan Africa in the next 40 years - if living standards are to be improved or even maintained at current levels.

Findings of the report by Senior Lecturer Robert Eastwood and Professor Michael Lipton are published in the March issue of the journal Population Studies.

The authors, who specialise in development economics, predict that prospects for the region's growing population can only improve if sufficient numbers of people obtain productive employment in the next few years.

The authors explain that for economic growth to outpace population growth, sub-Saharan Africa would need to follow Asia's example.  In that continent, fertility started to decline in the 1950s. The resulting rise in the number of workers per dependant - along with job-creating high rates of savings and investment  - allowed rapid economic growth in the period 1965-2005.  It is far from certain that sub-Saharan Africa will be able to follow suit.

The population of the region grew five-fold in the period 1950-2010, to reach 863 million in 2010. This figure is forecast to double by 2050.

The economists analysed the position for 15 countries in the region, which together contain two-thirds of its population.  Fertility started to fall around 1980 but, because the fall is slower than it was in Asia, the potential boost to the region's economic growth is less than Asia's. 

The decline in infant mortality has also been slower than it was in Asia, and people are less likely to have fewer children when the prospect of their survival is uncertain, say the researchers.

For this reason, the United Nations' projection of a speeding up of the fertility decline may prove unrealistic, say the authors.

The authors also show that, with the projected natural increase in population to 2025, wealth per person (in the form of machines, building, oil, forests, etc.) will fall faster than savings per person can replenish it in many of the large countries of the region. In consequence, current levels of consumption may be unsustainable.

Notes for Editors


Robert Eastwood and Michael Lipton. 'Demographic transition in sub-Saharan Africa: How big will the economic dividend be?', Population Studies, March 2011. (www.popstudies.net )  

Robert Eastwood is a Senior Lecturer and Professor Michael Lipton a Research Professor in the Department of Economics, University of Sussex.

Requests for a copy of the paper to: Anne Shepherd. Email pic@lse.ac.uk . Telephone  020 7955-7666

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Last updated: Tuesday, 1 March 2011