UN Director, Mabingue Ngom: ‘Africa must not waste its demographic dividend, the young population’

Current Affairs

UN Director, Mabingue Ngom: ‘Africa must not waste its demographic dividend, the young population’

Africa has the world’s highest proportion of youth in its demographic make-up. This is economically the most productive segment of any population and could provide the continent with its much anticipated “demographic dividend”. But for that to happen, the continent must make meaningful investments in empowering its youth. Christine Holzbauer interviews Director of the United Nations Population Fund (West and Central Africa) Mabingue Ngom.

New African: The “demographic dividend” will be the focus of discussions the next African Union summit in Addis Ababa. Is this a victory for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA)?

Mabingue Ngom: Yes, without any doubt, even though the inclusion of the demographic dividend on the agenda of the African Union (AU) summit was the result of many combined efforts. Although it was endorsed at the AU summit in January 2017, many African Heads of State had already become involved in advance. In fact, on 31 January 2016, the AU announced that the demographic dividend issue would be the theme of 2017, a year dedicated to youth issues.

The AU is rarely able to set its course a year in advance as it has done in this way; this shows the importance accorded to this issue by African leaders. Following this, the AU Commission, the NEPAD, the AfDB (African Development Bank), the ECA (Economic Commission for Africa) and UNFPA were given a mandate to prepare a roadmap for capturing the demographic dividend. This was approved in July 2016 in Kigali and launched on 30 January 2017 in Addis Ababa.

At the next AU summit, in July 2017, this roadmap will provide the basis for discussions between the 54 African Heads of State in order to agree specifically how to implement its recommendations.

UNPFA has worked hard to ensure that the demographic dividend is recognised as an integral part of the framework based on the Common African Position on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. We are therefore very proud that this recognition has led to its inclusion on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and also on Agenda 2063 for the transformation of Africa.

“This represents a unique window of opportunity, allowing others to achieve economic and social development that is comparable with that of the Asian Tigers. But, be careful: the demographic dividend isn’t automatic.”

That said, a vision in itself does not bring about development. You still need to dedicate the necessary resources. And I’m not just talking about financial resources but enormous efforts in terms of discipline and coordination regarding the actions that we will have to deploy to avoid deviating from the planned path.

Why is it so important for Africa to capture this demographic dividend?

When a country manages to reap economic benefits from its age pyramid, we refer to this as a demographic dividend. This means that an increase in the proportion of its working age population arising from declining fertility is markedly accompanied by effective investments in health, the empowerment of women, education and employment through the involvement of public authorities and private organisations.

A number of African countries have entered or are in the process of entering this advanced phase of demographic transition. This represents a unique window of opportunity, allowing others to achieve economic and social development that is comparable with that of the Asian Tigers. But, be careful: the demographic dividend isn’t automatic. Capturing it requires multisectoral and targeted investments that we need to make without delay.

When I returned to Dakar in April 2015 as the Regional Director of UNFPA, I brought together a group of researchers, economists and demographers in order to take stock of the work being carried out with regards to the demographic dividend. Alas, and to my great surprise, my first finding was that these experts were working with the same graphs that I myself studied during my economic courses. In addition, each person had carried on working in their field without attempting to combine the curves with recent developments in Africa.

This led to my feeling that we were treading water and my conviction that we urgently needed to generate a new impetus in order to move from theory to action and not miss out on capturing this demographic dividend. Since 2012, UNFPA has put this issue at the heart of its activities.

Are you satisfied with the results achieved so far?

Actually, we made a commitment five years ago to support the AU in its efforts to unite the different stakeholders around the demographic dividend in order to assist African countries in achieving the objectives of the 2030 and 2063 agendas.

To achieve this, UNFPA has implemented a series of highly strategic measures with young people, religious leaders, parliamentarians, specialist agencies and diplomatic representatives.

It was a question, at all stages, of supporting African states in creating the conditions necessary to benefit from the demographic dividend by adopting programmes and policies that could release the potential of young people through fulfilling their rights and respecting their dignity.

It would be wrong at this stage to state that we have achieved this. Moreover, this is why its advocacy must continue unabated since, for many African families, the feeling remains that children represent the best old-age pension.

“When we do not have the means to provide their basic necessities, this overflow of children in our increasingly overpopulated cities is the source of many instances of disorder.”

What a mistake it would be to think that the funding agencies are going to invest in countries where terror and instability reign because of unemployed young people who cannot find employment and prefer to throw themselves into the arms of the jihadists!

Africa is creating more than 250,000 jobs every year, but every year there are millions of young people entering the employment markets of African countries.

The world is changing and Africa is changing with it. Even if it was once legitimate to think that a family’s survival or prosperity was based on a high number of children when the majority of activities were of an agro-pastoral nature, this is no longer necessarily the case today.

Especially so in an Africa destined to become increasingly urbanised. A child will, of course, always form part of the wealth of an African family but not if they are forced to beg in the streets, or to go into illegal exile in dugout canoes or become instruments of ideologies which pay little attention to them as individuals.

When we do not have the means to provide their basic necessities, this overflow of children in our increasingly overpopulated cities is the source of many instances of disorder. Africans must understand – particularly in the Sahel region and around the Lake Chad Basin which have dried out because of over-exploitation by man in addition to global warming – that wealth no longer resides in the size of their family but in the quality of the education that they are able to provide to their children.

Can you give us some examples of where it has been possible to bring about changes in behaviour?

To break Africa’s economic dependence on its current demographic size, it was important to coalesce all efforts around capturing this demographic dividend. Since 2006, we have been working with the AU Commission in drawing up its African Youth Charter project. This was the first task. It is drawing to a conclusion although we want to extend it beyond 2017.

The second task involved rallying all of the AU’s partners and each of its members: parliamentarians and researchers, together with regional and sub-regional organisations and funding agencies in Europe, Asia and in the United States.

What is more, a $210m partnership with the World Bank as part of a pilot project for the 2015-2018 period involving six countries from the sub-region (Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Chad and Mauritania) will allow these countries to tap into their own resources by borrowing from the World Bank.

The goal is to promote access to reproductive health services and to family planning while encouraging girls to stay in school in order to avoid early marriages. These are all actions permitting greater empowerment of women and girls so that they become fully-fledged stakeholders in the process of capturing the demographic dividend.

Are these the countries that have taken the lead on this issue?

Yes, there are, in particular Chad. I have visited the former AU Chairperson, Idriss Déby Itno, on several occasions so that he continues to push for capturing the demographic bonus and takes action in his own country on controlling fertility.

I would like to pay tribute to him here because he has always been very much in favour of this idea. He also did everything to convince his peers that the situation around Lake Chad was catastrophic and that it was necessary to act without delay to reduce the level of female fertility because the climate issue was outside of our control.

“This clearly shows that African leaders hide behind false pretexts in order to avoid taking the necessary measures.”

We now need a change of scale by multiplying this kind of good practice in order to create a single critical mass which is able to bring about significant changes. I remain confident, because I know that the new Chairperson of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, will continue the effort.

Chad is also a leader in the area of early marriages. Its health minister took the courageous decision to pass a law prohibiting the marriage of underage children. This law now has to be applied and offenders punished because, without a measure like this, together with incentives for girls to remain in school up to secondary education level, we will not manage to reduce births in a meaningful way.

Other countries such as Niger and Mali are also looking at how to change their legislation in this direction even though they are difficult decisions to take since they are very unpopular.

At a meeting in Dakar in October 2015, I was very surprised to receive the unanimous support of religious leaders. This clearly shows that African leaders hide behind false pretexts in order to avoid taking the necessary measures, whereas religions have never stated that girls should marry at 12 or 13 years of age and have early pregnancies.

Have you already been able to calculate the benefits which might accrue from the demographic dividend?

Absolutely. We found that the benefit for the continent could be up to $500bn every year over a 30-year period, equivalent to one third of its GDP. This would allow hundreds of thousands of people to escape from poverty, to improve the quality of life and to boost economies.

To obtain this result, we took the example of Asian countries, which achieved between 40% and 66% of their growth thanks to the demographic dividend. That represents around $1,500bn per year, which you have to divide by three in order to estimate the gain for Africa.

That assumes accelerating the reduction in mother and infant mortality, which arises almost automatically from a reduction in fertility. This is also subject to adequate investments being made in order to provide access to health care and, in particular, reproductive health. There are currently more than 200m women waiting for these services on our continent; and, lastly, there is the third lever which is the reduction of early marriages, the cornerstone of this whole edifice.

However, this is on the condition that it can work over the long term and to include all communities, especially the most respected religious communities. This also involves raising the awareness of young people, or even the very young.

It will be the little girls who have suffered or seen the harm of female circumcision who will say “stop!” I firmly believe in the ability of young people to bring about change and have been working on this unceasingly for two years.

At the 10-year celebration of the African Youth Charter in May 2016 in Banjul, I launched “Young People First”, which was then followed at the Africa-France Summit in Bamako in January 2017 by “Not one step without the young”. I always take young people with me and regularly invite youth organisations such as AfriIYAN and ROJALNU to accompany me.

Young people are right to say that everything that is done for them and without them in Africa, could be against them. For my part, I’m proud to defend them, for they are the future.

Are you worried by the US’s recent decision to suspend their contributions to the UNFPA?

It is a shame that the Trump administration has taken such a decision considering the progress currently being made. I’m thinking particularly about the rising awareness in African countries about the need to invest in mother and infant health care.

What the American taxpayer perhaps doesn’t know is that for 100,000 live births, 679 women die every year in West and Central Africa and that the aid provided by UNFPA reduces this mortality rate.

You can see that we are doing important things for women and society. Our other traditional lenders, the Northern European countries and the large foundations, are continuing to support us. With our Dutch friends we have recently organised a large conference in Brussels to raise awareness among other potential donors.

I am convinced, however, that the solution lies in the arrangements that recipient countries are going to make in order to accelerate their own demographic transition in the expectation of fully benefiting from their demographic dividend. 

Countries like Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal have decided to allocate $1m from their budget to facilitate this transition. In Equatorial Guinea I was fortunate enough to receive funding of $6.7m from an oil company and the private sector is also willing to contribute in many of the other countries for which I am responsible.

In my region, social demand has never been higher. Why continue investing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid when a few million would be sufficient to help these countries prevent crises by controlling their demography? It seems that the African Heads of State have truly taken the message on board and that they will make every effort to capitalise on this demographic bonus.

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