What’s to be done about the stalled decline of fertility in Africa?

The fertility rate across Africa has not declined as quickly as the rest of the world. The Economist recently raised the alarm about the problem, but some experts have said that it is not all bad news.

Given the strong correlation between lowering birth rates and improving life outcomes, the news is a bit disappointing.  The population of Africa will reach 2.7 billion if current trends hold, a near tripling in a matter of only 40 years.

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“This extra half-billion people will damage Africa’s prospects. The continent will find it hard to educate the next generation—and education is the most important step in realizing the demographic dividend,” warned The Economist in an article from earlier this month.

There are thirteen countries on the continent that are doing well and moving in the right direction. The rest, accounting for roughly 78% of the population in Africa, are not doing so hot. They include places like Kenya and Madagascar, where fertility rates are below 5 births per women, but have stagnated. Places where rates exceed 5 births per women, reaching a global high of 7.5 in Niger, are showing weak signs of progress.

The British publication pins much of the problem on the lack of access to modern contraception. It suggests that the wide population distribution as compared to the densely packed Asian countries makes things more difficult, but the rate is far too low. It argues that the evidence is clear that contraception can reduce fertility, citing the difference between neighboring Tanzania and Uganda.

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The Ugandan government long took a negative stance on family planning, as opposed to the more supportive southern neighbor. The authors (anonymous as the Economist does with its reporting) suggest that the differing policies are why women in Tanzania are giving fewer births than women in Uganda, on average. Increasing access to modern forms of contraceptives, they argue, will go a long way to addressing the problem.

However, it is not quite that simple say some experts. In recently published responses to the two articles, reproductive health leaders have offered some points of clarification to the Economist.

“If one goes by the historical experience of fertility declines, several features of contemporary life in Africa, such as the recent increase in contraceptive use and reduction in childhood death-rates and in AIDS mortality, suggest that a demographic dividend might now actually be on the horizon,” said Cornell University professor Alala Basu in response.

Efforts have picked up in the past few years to ensure that the roughly 250 million women who do not have access to modern contraceptives will be reached. The early momentum has waned, but leading advocates and family planning organizations continue to campaign for governments to take more seriously the issue of family planning.

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“[S]ince the London Summit on Family Planning July 2012, promising strides have been made in this direction, with 18 African governments committing to improving access for contraception. Yet these same governments face shortages in financial commitments and bilateral partnerships. We urge not only African governments but also their global partners to convert pledges into action that delivers for women, and for Africa,” said Simon Cooke, Chief executive for Marie Stopes International.

Evelyne Opondo, Regional Director for Africa for the Centre for Reproductive Rights, agreed with Cooke in her response to the article. She too points out the importance of government-level leadership to reach women.

“Governments must that ensure women and girls get the information and the services they need to make good personal health decisions: declining fertility rates will be just one of many benefits that follow,” she wrote.

Where everyone agrees is that contraceptives play an important role in reducing fertility. More importantly, is that they provide the opportunity for choice so that families can grow at a pace that is safest for the mother and child.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.