By Mabingué Ngom
As delegates converged on Nairobi for the International Conference on Population Development (ICPD), we celebrated two milestones of immense importance globally and particularly in Africa – the 50th anniversary of the setting up of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).
It was in an African city, Cairo, that 179 governments adopted a revolutionary Programme of Action and called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take center stage in national and global development efforts.
The resulting Plan of Action with its core message – “The full and equal participation of women in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex,” has been the steering document for the work of the UNFPA.
25 years later, the ICPD met in another African city, Nairobi, to review and assess the progress made and also gird up, to tackle the challenges that still remain.
At UNFPA, our mission is clear and straightforward; to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.
However, while the destination is clear, the road to getting there is arduous and often full of obstacles requiring intimate understanding of people’s cultural mores, their fears and their hopes. It is work that requires a gentle touch, infinite patience and boundless stamina.
The demographic dividend
The continent’s total population will increase from 1 billion in 2010 to 1.6 billion in 2030, and three billion in 2065, with a population of 531 million young people in 2065 (30.2% of the total population).
I have always been a strong advocate of the demographic dividend and have great faith in our youth to use their originality and inventiveness to leapfrog into the 4th Industrial Revolution and usher in a new era of prosperity for the continent.
In 2016, I promoted a campaign called #PutYoungPeopleFirst. It has a reach of an estimated 3.6 million youth on social media. However, I am fully aware that unless an enabling environment is in place, the demographic dividend could well turn into a demographic nightmare.
Most of the work done by UNFPA WCARO revolves around a clear focus – capturing the demographic dividend – which will kick-start the continent’s long-awaited economic boom.
For this to happen, it is vital to change the discourse on population issues by linking demography to unmet social demands, the labour market, migration and, of course, instability.
It is estimated that achieving the dividend could generate exceptional economic growth in Africa, of around $500 billion a year for at least 30 years, based on the Asian experience.
This unprecedented potential requires changes in the population structure, the empowerment of women and improvements to health and education. The watchword is no longer birth control, but voluntary family planning based on human rights, where each individual or couple chooses the number of children they wish to have, and when.
At national and continental level, coherent policies and investment in human capital are needed. While African countries have all the resources required to move the demographic dividend forward, they need strong international partnerships. It is up to us to show our partners that we deserve more support. It will take partnerships to turn things around.
Additionally, family planning is no longer simply a question of controlling the demographic growth of developing countries, but also of social change. Moving beyond family planning requires the empowerment of women, as well as more comprehensive sexual and reproductive health measures and a massive effort to enroll girls in school.
If we can do this, virtuous circles of change are then set in motion, placing African countries in the driving seat, rather than the passenger seat, with development partners on hand to support them in fulfilling their aspirations.
However, good intentions are not enough. We must follow through with implementation. Many African countries have taken the responsibility of development in their own hands – through programmes that mirror the African Union’s Agenda 2063, among others.
We do not have the luxury of putting off the necessary action. Demographic forces cannot be halted; they can either be steered to a bright new future, or they can overwhelm us all.
Our philosophy is to build the future by addressing the pressing needs of the most vulnerable today. The aim is to ensure that nothing will ever be the same again, and that we leave no one behind.
Mabingué Ngom is UNFPA’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa, overseeing 23 countries