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Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict. His latest book is Things Come Together: Africans Achieving Greatness.

The planet is getting crowded. Later this year the UN Population Division predicts in its recently released World Population Prospects that we will soon count 8 billion people across the globe. By 2050, we will have nearly 10 billion people.

Only five disparate countries will account for much of the population surge: the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. China will be shrinking, not growing. Indeed, by 2023 India will be more populous than China, at around 1.4 billion people. (These chilling estimates include deaths during the coronavirus pandemic, from HIV-AIDS, from malaria, from auto mishaps, and from gun violence in the United States.)

By 2050, a full quarter of the world’s population will be African. Fertility, nearly five children per woman, and lack of education for girls are accelerating this dramatic demographic rise. By 2050, Nigeria, now about 210 million, will reach 375 million, equal to the U.S. Nigeria will continue growing and by the end of the century will have the third largest population on the planet.

The U.S. will slip to fourth place worldwide. But what is unexpected is that immediately following the U.S. in these demographic sweepstakes will be Pakistan at 366 million in 2050, Indonesia at 317 million, Brazil at 231 million, and the Democratic Republic of Congo at 215 million. The Congo’s population now is about 96 million. Ethiopia, today harbouring 122 million people, will swell to 213 million in 2050. Thereafter, both the Congo and Tanzania will keep increasing their numbers until they surpass every other African country except Nigeria. By the end of the century they may each even have more citizens than Pakistan and Indonesia.

These predictions of human proliferation are beginning to cause consternation because Africa is wholly unprepared for, and not yet worrying about, what its wild demographic surge is going to mean. Its leaders are mostly ignoring the coming demographic cataclysm.

Educating girls reduces fertility dramatically. But places like Tanzania and the Congo are not schooling girls to the same extent as other African countries. In Nigeria fertility rates among Muslim women in the north are three times higher than among Christian women in the south.

Lagos and Kinshasa are already among the most crowded and most complex metropolises in the world. They are growing faster than Cairo, Tokyo, and Mexico City, but lack suitable infrastructure. Supplies of potable water are limited, water sanitation is poor, and movement across their cityscapes is interminable.

How will Africa’s new populations be fed? Only a handful of Africa’s sub-Saharan countries now grow enough maize, manioc, wheat, teff, and yams to feed themselves. They slaughter sheep and goats, and even camels, but supplies of meat on the hoof are ultimately limited by periodic droughts caused by climate change. The war in Ukraine has also halted the ready availability of wheat to make bread – a staple in some regions. Countries in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa are already experiencing famine and hunger. Thomas Malthus may have been right to worry about the planet running out of food, albeit nearly 200 years ahead of time.

Of equal significance, where will the jobs come from to supply income and dignity to Africa’s newly abundant citizens? Two-thirds of most national populations will be aged 18 to 34 for the next 20 to 30 years. Formal unemployment rates are commonly at least 40 per cent in most of Africa.

What are these young people, only half of whom will be well-schooled, going to do? If they can’t obtain formal employment they will obviously drift, as many already do, into informal wage working – cleaning car windows at urban stoplights and selling cellphone chargers and vegetables along city streets, and crime. Swelling numbers of young people will also try to migrate to Europe.

Enlisting in Islamist insurgencies becomes attractive. The Islamic State of the Greater Sahara, the Islamic State of West Africa, al-Shabaab of Somalia, and new jihadist offshoots in Mozambique and the Congo all draw from the ranks of those without adequate opportunities to build decent lives.

USAID, and the Canadian, British, Swedish, Danish, and Japanese aid agencies must make haste to help African countries prepare and mitigate the consequences of demographic growth. Family planning efforts and financing needs to be tripled, There is little time, and too much to do.

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