Olajide Olutuyi, Co-Founder/ CEO, Top-Olax Energy Limited

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Subjects of Interest

  • Frontier and Emerging Markets
  • Private Sector Development
  • Sustainable Development

Nigeria and the population debate 16 Aug 2019

A crowd of Nigerians

The relationship between population growth and economic development has been a recurring theme in debates on economic development since the publication of An Essay on the Principle of Population, the 1798 book by Thomas Malthus. The British scholar argued that population growth would depress living standards in the long run. To be sure, subsequent studies have shown a negative correlation between population growth and economic growth.
Nevertheless, the Malthusian theory continues to influence development policy around the world over two centuries after it was first propounded. For instance, the population of a country is factored in several statistical measures of living standards. The gross domestic growth (GDP) per capita of a country is obtained by dividing its GDP for a particular period by its total population in the same period. By implication, annual economic growth needs to keep pace with the rate of population growth for a country to have a high per capita GDP.

At an annual growth rate of about 2.7 per cent, Nigeria’s population is estimated to reach 400 million by 2050. The country will become the third most populous country in the world, behind only India and China. Nigeria's population, estimated at 201 million in 2019, according to Worldometers, was 95.3 million in 1990. The infrastructures, healthcare systems and educational institutions have been overburdened by the rapid rise in population, a situation that has led to the current level of poverty.

Think of it as a man and his wife with four kids. They are living in a three-bedroom flat and they have a combined income of 200,000 naira per month. The man and his wife go on to have three more kids, while remaining at the same income level. Your guess is as good as mine. The family’s quality of life will nosedive. The dynamics of a country are, however, different than those of a family unit.

Therefore, it is relevant to note that a large population is not entirely bad. As a matter of fact, African countries are expected to experience more population growth than countries elsewhere. It is estimated that by the end of this century, almost a third of the world’s population will be in Africa and a large part of that will be because of Nigeria’s huge population. This can be a huge advantage for Africa. But it all depends on whether or not the continent can make a demographic transition by investing in human capital development.   

Historically, population has always been a point of concern for nations. Sometimes, the concern arises due to overpopulation and in other situations it is about underpopulation. Plato and Aristotle of ancient Greek both concluded that cities should have small enough people for efficient administration. But they also agreed that nations should be large enough to defend themselves from hostile neighbouring nations. In ancient Rome, a series of laws were instituted to encourage early marriages and increased fertility rate to expand the population and achieve increased productivity. Laws were also enacted to provide tax breaks and preferential treatment to those who complied with those laws.

Nations continue to do what is right for them at every stage of their development. Australia uses the family tax benefit payment, free immunization scheme and other benefits for working women to encourage citizens to have more children. Whereas India’s two-child policy makes anyone who has more than two children ineligible to run in local government elections. Some states in India have even provided disincentives for non-politicians to have more than two children.

Israel sought to increase its Haredi population by giving families with many children economic support through government assistance and child allowances. In Japan, where the population is shrinking, the government encourages women in the country to have more children. Two years ago, Spain appointed a Minister for Sex to encourage couples to have more babies to reverse the negative population growth rate the country is experiencing.

China’s one-child policy is arguably the most popular population planning system in the world. The policy, which was discontinued in October 2015, was instituted in 1979. The policy was introduced to alleviate the social and environmental issues China was going through at that time. The government estimated that the policy prevented about 400 million births; the policy made China a more educated society as the country achieved a demographic transition.

Interestingly, there are varying opinions about the effects of population change on a nation’s economic health. Economists like Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams believe that poverty and famine have nothing to do with overpopulation. They believe such ills are caused by bad governments and bad government policies. However, Paul Ehrlich, in his 1968 controversial book, The Population Bomb, provided a different opinion. In his words: “We must cut the cancer of population growth." He said, "if this was not done, there would be only one other solution, namely the 'death rate solution' in which we raise the death rate through war-famine-pestilence, etc.”

It is difficult to proffer a demographic policy for a country like Nigeria, where important issues are politicized, ethnicized and religionized. But whether we like it or not, we don’t need experts to tell that unbridled population growth is a precarious path to follow. The country’s leadership needs both the moral and political will to find the appropriate policy to reduce the population growth, boost economic development and develop human capital.

Studies continue to show that education of women and girls could play a major role in reducing and controlling the population growth. It will also be necessary to raise the legal age of marriage for girls.

In Bangladesh, people’s attitudes towards large-sized families and the use of contraceptives among married women changed through awareness and education. The country’s fertility rate decreased from an average of more than six children per woman in 1975 to slightly more than three today. In a 1990 research by economists Gary Becker, Kevin Murphy and Robert Tamura, the authors demonstrated that where there is abundance of human capital, rates of return on human capital investments continue to rise. And societies with abundant human capital have less fertility rates and consequently small families as they concentrate on growing human and physical capital, rather than having more children.  

Based on the findings by Becker, et al, an increase in Nigeria’s human capital stock will inadvertently reduce the high rate of infant mortality and eradicate the need of some parents who feel they should have many children as a form of social insurance in their old age. Government must also strengthen social protection systems for the poor.

Without a doubt, education is the key to achieving Nigeria’s demographic dividend. No country has achieved demographic transition without educating their people. In the meantime, the National Population Commission (NPopC) should be mandated to raise awareness about the benefits of having fewer children. More investment and education should focus on promoting the use of contraceptives, especially in low-income communities in the rural areas.