The first week of August is usually sleepy in Washington, DC, as Members of Congress head back home and staff collapse from exhaustion. The think tank and lobbying crowd slow down, too, storing up energy for whatever September might bring.
This year, though, it’s a whole different story. Next week more than 40 African heads of state and their entourages are expected to converge on downtown DC for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, convened by President Obama. Can you say “motorcade mayhem”?
The three-day event has been billed as “Investing in the Next Generation”—a worthy if challenging imperative for leaders who are some of the oldest in the world. Among the expected attendees are President Paul Biya of Cameroon (80), President Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia (78), President Jacob Zuma of South Africa (72), President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (72), and President Yoweri Musveni of Uganda (69)—all leaders of countries where more than half the population is younger than 21 years old. In other words, most citizens in those countries are the age of the presidents’ great-grandchildren.
Almost certainly, someone will bring up the fact that 43 percent of Africans are under age 15, which implies both the threat of restive youth in the streets and the potential of a young workforce for decades to come. It’s this hoped-for economic boost that will likely get the most play. (What leader wants to think about street protests when they’re out of the country?) In fact, if you attend both the official and side events, you can keep yourself occupied counting the number of times you hear "demographic dividend" or "demographic bonus.”
A demographic dividend is not, contrary to some suggestions, an automatic result of having a large number of productive young people. It’s a term coined to describe what can happen during the 20- to 30-year window following a population boom, when fertility rates fall. This creates a “bulge” in the population, where there are fewer older people (due to shorter life expectancies) and fewer younger people (due to reduced fertility rates). As the bulge reaches productive age, a country can benefit from having a large share of the population (potentially) contributing to economic growth through their own productivity, consumption, and savings. As that “potentially” indicates, though, realizing the benefits of a demographic shift depends on much more than youth; it also depends on wise policies. Three make a particular difference.
First, you only get a chance at a demographic dividend if fertility rates decline rapidly following a period of high birth rates. That’s what makes the difference between just a young population—like the ones that virtually all African countries now have—and the set-up for a demographic dividend.
How to make that happen? Fertility rates drop when investments are made in good education, family planning and other health services, and in opening economic opportunities for women. In most African countries, there is pent-up demand for family planning services that has yet to be met—that’s a good place to start.
Second, you have to focus on work for young people. If countries with a youth bulge are plagued by high unemployment or underemployment, that’s a recipe for trouble when those youth reach productive age. This may mean economic diversification to labor-intensive sectors, as well as investment in education and training programs that focus on the needs of the economy. This also means countries should invest in greater employment opportunities for women, who contribute to the economy and, when they earn income outside the home, tend to have fewer kids.
Third, you’ve got to keep your eye on policies that support economic growth, including maintaining macroeconomic stability, keeping trading relationships going, and providing opportunities for saving. This is the part that, by now, is the bread-and-butter of many economic policymakers in the region.
Next week, a young president from an aging country will talk with old presidents from youthful countries. Let’s see if they can, together, look at the bottom of Africa’s population pyramid—the young people—and realize the potential within.