Often cast into the backwaters of U.S. foreign policy, sub-Saharan Africa now looms large as the Biden Administration grapples with a wide range of global challenges. President Biden will soon host the upcoming Africa Leaders’ Summit in Washington, that acknowledges the U.S. government must do much more in Africa in order to advance U.S. interests and global prosperity.
Africa will play an increasingly important role in the global economy in this century. The war in Ukraine and China’s increasingly aggressive international posture have wiped away Western somnolence. Seeking to counter Russian and Chinese influence on the continent, the U.S. and its Western partners now are scrambling for Africa’s resources and diplomatic support.
Understanding the Power of People
Balancing use of Africa’s mineral deposits and its natural gas and oil reserves with conservation of the continent’s environment has become a major theme in the upcoming global climate summit in Egypt. But ironically, Africa’s principal resource—its people, and especially its youth—has been largely ignored.
According to the United Nations, global population will reach 8 billion people on November 15, 2022. By the end of this century, it will exceed 10 billion. This growth will not be evenly distributed; much of it will be concentrated in Africa. By 2100, Africa will be home to about a third of humanity. It is and will remain the most youthful continent for the remainder of this century and probably into the next, with younger demographics that favor faster population growth.
While there is no lack of discussion about “empowering Africa’s youth” by increasing education and employment opportunities, present strategies are long on laudable goals and short on how-tos. For example, the new U.S. Africa Strategy notes that 25 percent of the world’s population will live in Africa by 2050, and makes a passing reference to youth empowerment. But to understand how to achieve this critical objective, one must first understand the demographics of the continent.
If demography is destiny, then Africa’s future will be extremely challenging. For optimists, the African population’s “youth bulge” will be a fountain of new creative energy and entrepreneurship. For those less optimistic, Africa’s youth will pose civil and security challenges across the continent.
Both outlooks are valid. Which one predicts the actual outcomes will depend on the quality of governance delivered by African nations and their development partners. Good governance will require that governments provide essential services and infrastructure to feed, clothe, educate, and employ their citizens. But this will be a Herculean task. Africa faces a nearly $200 billion annual infrastructure financing shortfall—two trillion dollars over the next ten years.
Is it realistic to expect some combination of economic growth, development assistance, and private sector investment could close that gap? Given global economic conditions, it’s a doubtful proposition.
A more comprehensive, durable solution would be to rebalance Africa’s demographics, and shift the age structures of its youth-dominated countries towards a new structure that favors sustained economic growth and social and political stability.
There are examples of developing countries, such as Botswana, Tunisia, and Bangladesh, that have successfully reshaped their youth-dominated age structures so that working-age adults became the dominant age group. Such demographic shifts generate national wealth to support social spending in education, health, infrastructure, and municipal services.
These countries went about this task by investing in specific social services that helped bend their population’s growth rates. One key focus was educating women and girls and improving their access to healthcare. Advancing gender equality and helping women and girls take control of their lives and reproductive decisions can yield big societal benefits.
Gender inequality in many African countries is among the worst in the world. Studies show that societies with worse gender inequality are prone to worse violence and instability. Gender inequality can exacerbate population growth, civil unrest, terrorism, migration, and instability. So unchecked gender inequality in one region also imperils countries elsewhere.
The Path Forward
Shifting age structures away from youth dominance and improving gender equity are critical to Africa reaching its potential and becoming a full partner in the global economy. It’s also mission-critical for addressing Africa’s related challenges, including climate change, food security, extremism, and governance issues.
Africa’s international partners can help by prioritizing projects that focus on women-centered development, boosting girls’ education, curbing child marriage, and widening access to family planning. Investing in women and girls is an effective way to meet Africa’s challenges, and a creative answer to Russia and China seeking to exert their influence on the continent.
Next month’s Africa Leaders’ Summit could be an important step forward. Previous Africa Summits in Europe, America, and Asia have not explored the social, economic, and political demography of the continent. The Washington summit offers the Biden administration a chance to correct that. It should invest the time and intellectual energy needed to understand Africa’s demographic challenges and start envisioning ways to address them. Doing so could also shed light on durable solutions to Africa’s climate, food, extremism, and governance challenges, especially since each one of them is nested inside its demographic issues.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire Phillip Carter III is an independent consultant and senior fellow of the Population Institute who held senior positions at the U.S. State Department’s Africa Bureau and served as deputy to the Commander for Civil Military Engagement at the U. S. Africa Command.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz spent 25 years working on African issues with the U.S. State Department and the Peace Corps.