Africa’s demographic future and the SDGs’ focus on people: Challenges and prospects

By Patience W. Stephens
from Global Newsletter - September 2017

Concern for “the people” is at the heart of the historic declaration on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that the 193-member United Nations General Assembly adopted on September 25, 2015. Underscoring that emphasis is the fact that “people” is the first of 5 areas identified by the declaration as being of critical importance for humanity and the planet. The other areas are “planet”, “prosperity”, “peace” and “partnerships.” Seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets are expected to guide and drive global development efforts through 2030.

With respect to the people, the 2030 Agenda seeks to “end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment.” It aims to empower people who are vulnerable, especially children, youth, persons with disabilities, people living with HIV/AIDS, older persons, indigenous peoples, refugees and internally displaced persons and migrants. Member States resolved to work towards meeting the special needs of people living in areas affected by complex humanitarian emergencies and in areas affected by terrorism. The declaration serves as a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” and a plan “of the people, by the people and for the people” (paragraph 52).

Two years into the life of that path-breaking international document, there is evidence of certain challenges and limitations in reaching the primary focus of the 2030 Agenda-- “the people”. First of all, knowledge of this international document remains very limited. Even in more developed regions with high educational and professional attainment, many never heard of it or profess not to care about the Agenda. For example, a recent report from a meeting of the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network confirms that the staff of most corporations are not even aware of the SDGs. The World Economic Forum’s 2017 World Shapers Survey of young people aged 18 to 35 years found that 44.7 per cent said they were not sure or did not know about the SDGs. That fact alone is a source of concern, given that it is the young people of today who will be bearing the brunt of climate instability in the near future and who might be considered the standard-bearers in adaptation efforts.

Apart from that, this shortcoming is worrisome, given that over the 15-year projected life course of the 2030 Agenda, practitioners and policy makers will not only have to meet the needs of the world’s existing 7.4 billion people in 2015, but also the 1.7 billion yet unborn but who will be added through 2030.

Africa, a region that already faces strong demographic pressures, where large segments of the population lack access to basic infrastructure and services, and where levels of illiteracy are high while education opportunities and levels are compromised for many, will experience a substantial increase in its population during the period of SDG implementation, including some vulnerable segments. That increase cannot but impinge on the 2030 Agenda’s stated intent to “leave no one behind”, reaching the people and securing for them the benefits of sustainable development.

According to estimates and projections of the Population Division of the United Nations, between 2015 and 2030 (the period covered by the 2030 Agenda), the world’s population is expected to increase by 15 per cent – from some 7.3 billion to 8.6 billion. Developed regions will see an increase of about 3 percent, and developing regions will grow by 18 percent. The population of the least developed countries with high levels of poverty and lacking social services will increase by 39 percent. In general, the population is expected to increase by smaller percentages in other world regions, except in Europe where a slight decline will occur.

Africa’s population growth will be particularly rapid and threatens to complicate and derail the achievement of the goals of the 2030 Agenda. Between 2015 and 2030 the region will see the number of people grow by 43 per cent – from 1.2 to 1.7 billion. In sub-Saharan Africa, the growth will be from 969 million to 1.4 billion people (46 per cent increase). That means that in Africa in 2030, there will be just about one additional person for every 2 people that were there at the start of the pursuit of the SDGs in 2015. The implications of that demographic challenge for attaining the SDGs and for reaching “the people,” especially those furthest behind, could be far-reaching.

The consequences of high population growth for the attainment of the 2030 Agenda’s goals on the sustainable management of natural resources and the protection of the planet are well-recognized and often referred to. Equally important are the implications of population trends on the achievement of the other SDGs, especially those on poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, decent work and peace and justice. While theoretically, the expected population pressure in Africa could trigger a demographic dividend and spur development within the region, that is by no means certain, especially in the African context where there are weak opportunities for education, skills development and decent work. There is indeed evidence that much of what is often perceived as a pure demographic dividend may, in fact, be an education dividend.

Given that demography might be a politically sensitive subject, the 2030 Agenda does not address demography specifically and makes only one action-oriented mention of population trends by noting in paragraph 34 that --“We will also take account of population trends and projections in our national rural and urban development strategies and policies.” If the saying that “demography is destiny” is correct, then Africa’s demographic trends could well be its destiny with respect to the future of the SDGs in the region. An urgent and proactive approach is required for addressing the headwinds that population trends in the region present. Considerable investment will be needed simply to keep up with demographically driven increasing demands for health care, education, jobs and other basic services and infrastructure for a rapidly growing population.

It is important to note that, although the largest part of the increase in population in Africa will be the result of births (which will increase by 11 per cent between 2015-2020 and 2025-2030), the increase in the size of the population in the region will also partially be the result of greater longevity. The proportion of the population aged over 50 years is expected to increase from 11 to 13 per cent over the period, adding to the challenges of Africa’s youth bulge, newer pressures from an increasing older population. Intergenerational solidarity might be tested under the new circumstances, but it remains a pre-requisite for sustaining social cohesion in the quest for a “society for all”.

Reaching and serving Africa’s growing and increasingly diverse population and ensuring that all people reap the benefits of the forward-looking international plans embodied in the 2030 Agenda will require a multi-pronged approach. At the national level it will require the efforts of society as a whole. Addressing high fertility by ensuring access to family planning and reproductive health services is a necessary and important part of interventions. However, given the fact that the momentum for much of the population growth in the next 15 years or so has already been created by the large cohorts of women and men in the reproductive age groups, policies will be needed to accommodate and mitigate the negative effects of the rapid growth of the population on the achievement of the SDGs. Increased and targeted investments in high-quality and relevant education, including efforts to incorporate the 2030 Agenda and SDGs in school curricula at all levels, will be of critical importance. Civil society must also be actively engaged in the design and implementation of interventions in order to ensure that they are relevant to society and reach sub-populations that are the furthest behind.