A market in Lagos, Nigeria, a country whose high birthrates presage a demographic crisis. More Photos »
Published: April 14, 2012
LAGOS, Nigeria – In a quarter-century, at the rate Nigeria is growing, 300 million people – a population about as big as that of the present-day United States – will live in a country roughly the size of Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada. In this commercial hub, where the area’s population has by some estimates nearly doubled over 15 years to 21 million, living standards for many are falling.
Lifelong residents like Peju Taofika and her three granddaughters inhabit a room in a typical apartment block known as a â€œFace Me, Face Youâ€ because whole families squeeze into 7-by-11-foot rooms along a narrow corridor. Up to 50 people share a kitchen, toilet and sink – though the pipes in the neighborhood often no longer carry water.
At Alapere Primary School, more than 100 students cram into most classrooms, two to a desk.
As graduates pour out of high schools and universities, Nigeria’s unemployment rate is nearly 50 percent for people in urban areas ages 15 to 24 – driving crime and discontent.
The growing upper-middle class also feels the squeeze, as commutes from even nearby suburbs can run two to three hours.
Last October, the United Nations announced the global population had breached seven billion and would expand rapidly for decades, taxing natural resources if countries cannot better manage the growth.
Nearly all of the increase is in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population rise far outstrips economic expansion. Of the roughly 20 countries where women average more than five children, almost all are in the region.
Elsewhere in the developing world, in Asia and Latin America, fertility rates have fallen sharply in recent generations and now resemble those in the United States – just above two children per woman. That transformation was driven in each country by a mix of educational and employment opportunities for women, access to contraception, urbanization and an evolving middle class. Whether similar forces will defuse the population bomb in sub-Sarahan Africa is unclear.
â€œThe pace of growth in Africa is unlike anything else ever in history and a critical problem,â€ said Joel E. Cohen, a professor of population at Rockefeller University in New York City. â€œWhat is effective in the context of these countries may not be what worked in Latin America orKerala or Bangladesh.â€
Across sub-Saharan Africa, alarmed governments have begun to act, often reversing longstanding policies that encouraged or accepted large families. Nigeria made contraceptives free last year, and officials are promoting smaller families as a key to economic salvation, holding up the financial gains in nations like Thailand as inspiration.
Nigeria, already the world’s sixth most populous nation with 167 million people, is a crucial test case, since its success or failure at bringing down birthrates will have outsize influence on the world’s population. If this large nation rich with oil cannot control its growth, what hope is there for the many smaller, poorer countries?
â€œPopulation is key,â€ said Peter Ogunjuyigbe, a demographer at Obafemi Awolowo University in the small central city of Ile-Ife. â€œIf you don’t take care of population, schools can’t cope, hospitals can’t cope, there’s not enough housing – there’s nothing you can do to have economic development.â€
The Nigerian government is rapidly building infrastructure but cannot keep up, and some experts worry that it, and other African nations, will not act forcefully enough to rein in population growth. For two decades, the Nigerian government has recommended that families limit themselves to four children, with little effect.
Although he acknowledged that more countries were trying to control population, Parfait M. Eloundou-Enyegue, a professor of development sociology at Cornell University, said, â€œMany countries only get religion when faced with food riots or being told they have the highest fertility rate in the world or start worrying about political unrest.â€
In Nigeria, experts say, the swelling ranks of unemployed youths with little hope have fed the growth of the radical Islamist group Boko Haram, which has bombed or burned more than a dozen churches and schools this year.
Internationally, the African population boom means more illegal immigration, already at a high, according to Frontex, the European border agency. There are up to 400,000 undocumented Africans in the United States.
Nigeria, like many sub-Saharan African countries, has experienced a slight decline in average fertility rates, to about 5.5 last year from 6.8 in 1975. But this level of fertility, combined with an extremely young population, still puts such countries on a steep and disastrous growth curve. Half of Nigerian women are under 19, just entering their peak childbearing years.
Women Left Behind
Statistics are stunning. Sub-Saharan Africa, which now accounts for 12 percent of the world’s population, will account for more than a third by 2100, by many projections.
Because Africa was for centuries agriculturally based and sparsely populated, it made sense for leaders to promote high fertility rates. Family planning, introduced in the 1970s by groups like Usaid, was initially regarded as foreign, and later on, money and attention were diverted from family planning to Africa’s AIDS crisis.
â€œWomen in sub-Saharan Africa were left behind,â€ said Jean-Pierre Guengant, director of research at the Research Institute for Development, in Paris. The drastic transition from high to low birthrates that took place in poor countries in Asia, Latin America and North Africa has yet to happen here.
That transition often brings substantial economic benefits, said Eduard Bos, a population specialist at the World Bank. As the last large population group reaches working age, the number of adults in the labor force is high relative to more dependent groups – the young and the elderly – for a time. If managed well, that creates capital that can be used to improve health and education and to develop new industries.
And that has happened elsewhere. Per-capita gross domestic product in Latin America, Asia and North Africa increased between three and six times as population was brought under control, Dr. Guengant said. During that same period it has increased only marginally in many African countries, despite robust general economic growth.
In Nigeria, policymakers are studying how to foster the transition, and its attendant financial benefits, here. In the ramshackle towns of the Oriade area near Ile-Ife, where streets are lined with stalls selling prepaid cellphone cards and food like pounded yam, Dr. Ogunjuyigbe’s team goes door to door studying attitudes toward family size and how it affects health and wealth. Many young adults, particularly educated women, now want two to four children. But the preferences of men, particularly older men, have been slower to change – crucial in a patriarchal culture where polygamy is widespread.
At his concrete home in the town of Ipetumodu, Abel Olanyi, 35, a laborer, said he has four children and wants two more. â€œThe number you have depends on your strength and capacity,â€ he said, his wife sitting silently by his side.
Large families signal prosperity and importance in African cultures; some cultures let women attend village meetings only after they have had their 11th child. And a history of high infant mortality, since improved thanks to interventions like vaccination, makes families reluctant to have fewer children.
Muriana Taiwo, 45, explained that it was â€œGod’s willâ€ for him to have 12 children by his three wives, calling each child a â€œblessingâ€ because so many of his own siblings had died.
In a deeply religious country where many Roman Catholics and Muslims oppose contraception, politicians and doctors broach the topic gingerly, and change is slow. Posters promote â€œbirth spacing,â€ not â€œbirth control.â€ Supplies of contraceptives are often erratic.
In Asian countries, women’s contraceptive use skyrocketed from less than 20 percent to 60 to 80 percent in decades. In Latin America, requiring girls to finish high school correlated with a sharp drop in birthrates.
But contraceptive use is rising only a fraction of a percent annually – in many sub-Saharan African nations, it is under 20 percent – and, in surveys, even well-educated women in the region often want four to six children.
â€œAt this pace it will take 100-plus years to arrive at a point where fertility is controlled,â€ Dr. Guengant said.
There are also regional differences. The average number of children per woman in the wealthier south of Nigeria has decreased slightly in the last five years, but increased to 7.3 in the predominantly Muslim north, where women often cannot go to a family planning clinic unless accompanied by a man.
The United Nations estimates that the global population will stabilize at 10 billion in 2100, assuming that declining birthrates will eventually yield a global average of 2.1 children per woman. At a rate of even 2.6, Dr. Guengant said, the number becomes 16 billion.
There are signs that the shifting economics and lifestyles of middle-class Africans may help turn the tide, Dr. Ogunjuyigbe said. As Nigeria urbanizes, children’s help is not needed in fields; the extended families have broken down. â€œChildren were seen as a kind of insurance for the future; now they are a liability for life,â€ he said.
Waiting in a women’s health clinic, Ayoola Adeeyo, 42, said she wanted her four children, ages 6 to 17, to attend university, and did not want more children.
â€œPeople used to want 6 or 7 or even 12, but nobody can do that now. It’s the economics,â€ said Ms. Adeeyo, elegant in a flowing green dress and matching head wrap. â€œIt costs a lot to raise a child.â€
Dr. Eloundou-Enyegue worries that Africa’s modestly declining birthrates reflect relatively rich, educated people reducing to invest in raising â€œqualityâ€ children, while poor people continue to have many offspring, strengthening divisions between haves and have-nots. â€œWhen you have a system with a large degree of corruption and inequality, it’s hard not to be playing the lottery because it increases the chances that one child will succeed,â€ he said.
In Nigeria’s desperately poor neighbor, Niger, women have on average more than seven children, and men consider their ideal to be more than 12. But with land divided among so many sons, the size of a typical family plot has fallen by more than a third since 2005, meaning there is little long-term hope for feeding children, said Amadou Sayo, of the aid group CARE.
Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund and a former Nigerian health minister, said he is optimistic for a turnaround if governments better support education for girls and contraceptive services. â€œWe can see rapid changes, but that’s up in the air, because you have to be aggressive and consistent.â€
Birthrates have edged down to about four children per woman in Kenya, Ethiopia and Ghana.
One recent morning in Lagos, hundreds of patients waited at the Ketu district clinic for treatments like measles vaccines, malaria pills and birth control.
â€œOf course when the population grows so quickly, that stresses hospitals,â€ said Dr. Morayo Ismail – although migration from rural areas has also swelled Lagos’s population. A mother of one herself, Dr. Ismail said many poor women still want four or more children.
That evening at the clinic, Bola Agboola, 30, gave birth to her second child. After nurses swaddled the boy, dispensed with the placenta and declared Ms. Agboola well, they whooped, praising God.
Then, as Ms. Agboola’s husband entered, some started another chant: â€œNow start another one. Start another one.â€
The original article can be found here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/world/africa/in-nigeria-a-preview-of-an-overcrowded-planet.html?pagewanted=2&ref=africa