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The Prospects for Progress in Africa

Nigeria will have a higher population than the U.S. by mid-century, when one in four people on Earth will live in Africa.

Recently, I came across a stunning statistic. By mid-century, there will be more Nigerians than Americans. Nigeria is one of the world's worst run countries and its unemployment rate hovers around 24 percent. A dysfunctional country and an exploding population do not mix very well. What is true of Nigeria is also true of large parts of the African continent.

As we speak, one out of seven inhabitants of the planet lives in Africa. By mid-century, one in four people on Earth will be African. If the current trends continue, somewhere between one third and one half of the world's population will live in Africa by 2100. African unemployment is not easy to guesstimate, but South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, suffers from an unemployment rate of 27 percent. How, I wonder, are all of these people going to make a living?

This column is, generally speaking, the very definition of optimism. I am, for example, largely sanguine about the impact of automation on America's unemployment rate. Our country has lived through profound economic changes in the past and risen to the challenge. At the time of the American Revolution, for example, over 90 percent of Americans worked in agriculture. As late as 1900, 40 percent of Americans did so. Today, 1.5 percent do, while feeding the country as well as much of the rest of the world too. All that surplus labor was soaked up by manufacturing and, later, services. Adjusted for population growth, a record number of Americans today has a job, dislocation emanating from the IT revolution notwithstanding.

Relatively speaking, the United States is well placed to deal with automation, robotics, and perhaps even artificial intelligence. Our state-run primary and secondary education systems sucks, but American universities are second to none and the number of college-educated Americans is at an all-time high. We have a decent legal system and business environment. The welfare state, while technically bankrupt, can provide a cushion for the temporarily unemployed in extremis (and after cuts elsewhere). That does not mean that America does not need reforms, hence the "relatively speaking" at the start of this paragraph. But we are in better shape to face the challenges of the future than many other nations.

Unfortunately that is not true of Africa. The African legal system, the African business environment, and all levels of Africa's state-provided education are, compared to the rest of the world, abysmal. The continent is far too poor to afford even a rudimentary social welfare net. So what are the hundreds of millions of people, mostly young, to do in the coming decades?

Much of Asia has escaped from poverty through labor-intensive and export-oriented industrialization. Africa, by contrast, is actually de-industrializing. This is not happening because of free trade, since Africa remains the least economically free region in the world. Rather, African workers cannot compete with much more productive Asian labor due to a number of factors that include lack of decent education and skills, bad financial and transport infrastructure, Byzantine bureaucracy and heavy regulation, and so on.

To make matters worse, automation and robotics are bound to make Africa's workers even less competitive in the future. Simply put, it is difficult to see how the Asian route out of poverty can be repeated on the African continent. And in order to leapfrog Asian-style industrialization into an American-style modern economy, Africa would need well-functioning rule of law, property rights, and a welcoming business environment. It has none of those.

That leaves agriculture, but even here the outlook is not promising. The continent is rapidly urbanizing and few Africans see their future in farming. In any case, farming in the rest of the world is increasingly dominated by large and mechanized agricultural concerns, not small and labor-intensive farms. So, again, where will the African jobs of the future come from? I do not know, but the prospect of between one third and one half of humanity living on a continent without the prerequisites for succeeding in the 21st century economy strikes me as a reason for concern.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    How, I wonder, are all of these people going to make a living?

    Looks like the international busybody community will have to find a way to outlaw mosquito nets.

  • Cyto||

    Half the population in Africa..... if current growth continues.

    You know what doesn't continue? Current population growth.

    Although they do seem to be married to the idea of continuing to have corrupt and incompetent governments, so maybe this population time bomb will be the one exception that proves the rule.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    "Maybe this population bomb will be the one exception."

    Magical think much?

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Do Reason writers tend to read each other's work? Bailey's book, The End of Doom (which I highly recommend) makes a very persuasive case for population peaking and then gradually declining or stabilizing. That includes Africa.

    In addition, I was under the impression that China was investing heavily in developing some areas in Africa. Resource extraction is their motivation, but the side benefits to the Africans include improvements to their transportation and communications infrastructure.

  • AlmightyJB||

    Food supply will contain population growth

  • gaoxiaen||

    Withe the untapped resources that Africa has, everyone there should be rich. However they still eat albinos and hunt Pygmies for food when things get rough. Not in this lifetime.

  • gaoxiaen||

  • Tankboy||

    ^^ Nice!

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    In South Africa it is commonly believed that raping an infant will cure HIV. When a place is that damned backward there just isn't much you or anyone can do for it. Africa will have to solve it's own problems, and I expect it will have to get a lot worse before that happens. And the world will have to stand by as they experience mass starvation and epidemics; that or open every country to import all of those problems.

  • Gadfly||

    You are correct, China has massive projects in many African nations to extract resources to feed its economy, and as part of these projects has developed local infrastructure. However, I've also read that most/all skilled labor on the Chinese projects is contracted to Chinese nationals, not local Africans, and since the corrupt governments are the recipients of the revenue from most of these projects the general benefit to the African nations of Chinese involvement is less than it could be, especially if both sides adopted a more free-trade approach.

  • Rhywun||

    That includes Africa.

    I haven't read the book, but does he account for African leaders' penchant for stealing the wealth of their citizens? Or the largely non-functional states?

  • AlmightyJB||

    Just bring them all here. Maybe we could build a giant monorail over the Atlantic. Just think of all the prosperity we will have.

  • cgr2727||

    It worked for Shelbyville and North Haverbrook!

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    Of course beyond actual want "wealth" and "starvation" are relative terms, depending upon what you and your neighbors have beyond meeting your basic needs, right?

    So maybe we could all be equally "wealthy" or "poor" depending on how you look at it; but if there are no differences then it must be paradise as we all wander from our tin shacks and go about the countryside looking for something to eat every day.

  • Jerryskids||

    Hence the IPCC - the developed world can enjoy their cars and air conditioning and all the comforts of modern living and still feel smug by paying the undeveloped world to remain undeveloped. They'll be like a living museum exhibit of what Man in untrammeled Nature looks like. Or monkeys in a zoo - toss them some peanuts and laugh at their antics as they fail in their futile attempts to imitate humans. Just try not to think about the fact that plenty of those monkeys are smarter than you and can figure out how to take care of themselves better than you can and the proof of that is that it wasn't Africans who came up with the UN and the IPCC and all the collectivism that entails.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    It wasn't a non-African who invented the Bee-Man Lion Generator, which was my nickname in college.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    By mid-century, one in four people on Earth will be African.

    Free Society and Irish hardest hit.

  • Citizen X - #6||

    You can't spell Caucasian without -asian, so worse.

  • creech||

    Isn't the entire world population already of African descent?

  • gaoxiaen||

    +1 Homo habilis

  • Diane Merriam||

    If you go back even farther, we're all microbes.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    If, and I repeat IF, the African nations get smart and tell the assorted salesmen of Sociality Poverty and get their overdue Industrial Revolution kicked off, they will quickly see their prosperity rise and their population level off. If they keep playing with the political dengue fever that is Socialism they will doubtless raise up a regime at least as murderous as that of that miserable Austrian madman.

    Either way, the population issue is self correcting.

  • Tankboy||

    I think Africa is our "spare continent". We develop the crap out of the Americas, Europe and Asia, but leave Africa as a preserve. Our Federal government is rabid in its desire to lock up western lands as National Parks, so the UN should declare Africa a World Park, free from the stain of industrialization, civilization or representative government. Maybe, in the future, when the rest of the world is highways, condos, factories and vertical farms, we will appreciate The Great Outdoors that will be the untouched African continent. Meanwhile, the Chinese will have extracted all the worthwhile minerals.

  • albo||

    Clothing. Clothes basically cost the same, in nominal terms, as they did 20 years ago when manufacturing moved off-shore. In real terms, clothes are cheap, and makers are constantly moving to places that keep costs down. As soon as making shirts in Bangladesh gets too expensive, it may be Africa's turn next.

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    The gist of this article suggests that Africa is so endemically corrupt that their dysfunction will stymie any opportunities for improvement. Of course if an when textile manufacturing moves to that continent, the "big men" will want the proceeds to go to themselves and their cronies, and tyrants will continue to fight for their share of the spoils.

  • Tankboy||

    No next. You can already buy clothes made in Lesotho. Unless that was a typo and the tee shirt was made from Lesotho, a fabric comprised of a sustainable combination of bamboo and hemp.

  • ||

    Mr Jefferson Konibi
    Collection and Reimbursement Department
    KPN Banque Internacional
    Du Benin, Nigeria 56-Y82G
    Private Email:jkkonibi@hotmail.com
    SUBJECT: POPULATION MULTIPLIER EFFECT

    Good day,

    With warm heart I offer my friendship, and my greetings, and I hope this letter meets you in good time…

  • Quo Usque Tandem||

    And it ends with "no worries, I know this sounds alarming but I can assure you all will be well at the end of the day."

  • Rhywun||

    Oh god it's going to be raining Nigerian princes, isn't it.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Nigeria will have a higher population than the U.S. by mid-century, when one in four people on Earth will live in Africa.

    I strongly doubt it.

    As the population explodes, if the country continues to be poorly run, famine and war will likely take care of a chunk of people (either by death or mass exodus). If the country straightens its shit out, birth rates will drop as people become more wealthy.

  • Azathoth!!||

    It's always weird when reason has articles espousing the same sort of ideas they normally ridicule.

    Malthusian gloom and doomism? really?

  • BYODB||

    Umm...isn't the average lifespan in Nigeria like 50? I'm not sure about the AIDS situation in Nigeria, but having 10 kids is something that 3rd world countries do because you don't know how many of them will live.


    Thinking that this rate will be unaffected by technological or societal shifts between now and whenever is how we ended up with retarded books like Population Bomb and ecological concepts like AGW.

  • Empress Trudy||

    There is not one Africa. Africa is, for lack of a better word, a diverse place. Ghana isn't Mali or Sierra Leone. Zambia isn't Zimbabwe. The Sahel isn't North Africa. There are some areas where "Africa" is doing quite well. Uganda, Angola, and Mozambique for example. The 'Heart of Darkness'; Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, are doing terribly as they have for decades. Zimbabwe is a basket case but only in the framework of the west and only in relation to what it used to be. By 'African' standards, Zimbabwe is mediocre but not awful.

    It's important though to understand that each place has its own problems and its own history from war to tribal hatred to colonial exploitation to commodity extraction of oil, minerals and timber to disease to land use and water use issues to deforestation to Islam and 20 other things. So there's no one fix or 40 fixes. There are hundreds, thousands of fixes that have to be taken on.

  • Empress Trudy||

    And by the way if you want to watch a country implode in flames soon - look at Pakistan, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia. They are poised to explode in population right at the moment they run out of everything else including food, water and money

  • LeroyKoehler||

    Africa is probably over exploited continents in the world, where poverty is an issue that's been long ignored by the developed countries. Progress is really important for everyone, the youth development who belongs to the poor family is really an important issue, but the steps taken are creditable. You can click on this to know how some non-profit organizations are working for the development of the Africa by supporting the aid programs.

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