In this op-ed Bill and Melinda Gates point out that while the population of the world is approaching middle age, Africa uniquely remains young. They argue that this factor can be a powerful force not only for Africa but the world. But for this potential to be unlocked, African youth, including its women, must have access to health and education –the essential engines of economic growth
Does the world today look like what you imagined a decade ago? For us, the answer is both yes and no. On the one hand, the world as a whole continues to make the broad progress we hoped and expected to see. Many trendlines from the last decade continue their same positive trajectory: Fewer people are dying from preventable diseases. More girls are going to school every year, and more children are surviving to adulthood. In sub-Saharan Africa, the number of kids who die before the age of five fell by 32% between 2000 and 2017.
On the other hand, unexpected events have reshaped the world in a way that no one (including us!) saw coming. That would be true for any random year that you pick – but last year, it seemed like unforeseen forces had an outsized impact. From especially devastating natural disasters to record numbers of women campaigning for offi ce in the United States, 2018 felt to us like a series of surprises.
A benefit of surprises is that they’re often a prod to action. When you realise that the realities of the world don’t match your expectations, it gnaws at you.
Twenty-five years ago, a surprise changed the course of our lives. While reading the newspaper, we saw an article that made a shocking statement: hundreds of thousands of kids in poor countries were dying from diarrhoea. That revelation stopped us in our tracks. We sent a copy of the article to Bill’s dad and said, “Maybe we can do something about this.”
That surprise was one of the most important steps in our journey to philanthropy. It helped crystallise our values: we believe in a world where innovation is for everyone – where no child dies from a disease it’s possible to prevent. But what we saw was a world still shaped by inequity.
In our Annual Letter this year, we wrote about nine things that have surprised us along this journey. Some helped us see that the status quo needs disruption, like the fact that data collection can be sexist and often doesn’t take women and girls into account.
Others underscore that transformation is happening already, like the notion that textbooks are becoming obsolete thanks to new technology.
World gets older, Africa stays young
One of the surprises we wrote about is particularly resonant in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya: Africa is the youngest continent. While the world keeps getting older, Africa – and especially sub-Saharan Africa – stays young.
The global median age is on the rise. In every part of the world, people are living longer. As more children survive to adulthood, women are having fewer kids than ever before. The result is a global population that’s creeping slowly toward middle age.
Except in Africa, where the median age is just 18. It’s 17.3 in Burkina Faso, and in Uganda, the median age is only 15.8. Compare that to North America, where it’s 35.
There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that the annual number of births is going up in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa, even as it goes down in other parts of Africa. This can be either an asset or a source of instability. Sub-Saharan governments currently spend an average of 16.9 per cent of their budget on education, compared to 11.8 per cent in Europe and 14.1 per cent in North America.
We believe that the right investments will unlock the continent’s enormous potential. Young Africans will shape the future of not only their own communities but the entire world.
When economists describe the conditions under which countries prosper, one of the factors they stress is ‘human capital’, which is another way of saying that the future depends on young people’s access to high-quality health and education services. Health and education are the twin engines of economic growth.
If sub-Saharan Africa commits to investing in its young people, the region could double its share of the global labour force by 2050, unlocking a better life for hundreds of millions of people.
Girls’ education, especially, is among the most powerful forces on the planet. Educated girls are healthier. They are wealthier. (If all girls received 12 years of high-quality education, women’s lifetime earnings would increase by as much as $30 trillion, which is bigger than the entire US economy.) And their families benefit, too.
The more education a woman has, the better equipped she is to raise healthy children. In fact, UNESCO estimates that if all women in sub-Saharan Africa finished secondary school, 1.5m more children would live to see their fifth birthday.
A healthy, educated, and empowered African youth boom that lifts girls instead of leaving them behind would be the best indicator of progress we can imagine.
We know first hand that a surprise can be a powerful call to action. When something is at odds with your expectations – like the fact that Africa is the world’s youngest continent – you get surprised, then you get curious, then you get activated. That’s how the world gets better.
This article is adapted from the Bill & Melinda Gates’ 2019 Annual Letter.