Four Billion More What to Do About Massive Population Growth

The populations in the poorest countries on earth are doubling every few decades. That necessarily leads to conflict over scarce resources such as land, food and work -- and to more migration to Europe. But there are solutions.
A crowded market square in central Lagos.

A crowded market square in central Lagos.

Foto: Akintunde Akinleye / REUTERS

All it takes is a half-hour at this intersection in Lagos, the sprawling metropolis in Nigeria, to begin fearing this city. White oil tankers crawl along both on and beneath an overpass on the multilane Apapa Road, making their way out of the Niger River delta. Zipping around them are black-and-yellow rickshaws and minibuses, with sweaty passengers clinging to the doors. Every few meters, a truck hits the brakes with an ear-splitting shriek, the clouds of exhaust mixing with the diesel fumes of the generators. The foul air hangs like a thick blanket over the corrugated metal slums to the right and left of the street. Just 30 minutes at this intersection is enough to make you want to flee this city -- a megalopolis that is growing faster than almost any other place on earth.

In the 1950s, Lagos was home to just 300,000 people. Today, around 20 million live here. And by 2050, that number is likely to double to 40 million. According to projections by the United Nations, Nigeria could have a population of 400 million people by then, which would make it the third most populous country in the world.

Lagos is a prime place to observe the effects of population growth in many developing and threshold countries. Unable to survive in the countryside do to the lack of work and shortages of food and water, people are flocking to the cities. And it isn't difficult to guess that some of them will continue onward to a place where hunger isn't a problem, where it is peaceful and where prosperity is at least a possibility. To Europe . In 2017, migrants from Nigeria represented the fourth-largest group of asylum-seekers in the European Union, after refuges from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2018, they were in seventh place.

Africa is in in the midst of a population explosion that will necessarily lead to a massive wave of migration toward Europe, writes Stephen Smith, an Africa studies professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, in his soon-to-be-released book "The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on Its Way to the Old Continent."

Smith, a former Africa correspondent, predicts that as a result of the massive wave of migration, between 150 and 200 million people of African heritage will live in Europe by 2050. He warns of a "stampede" and a "flood" that will reach across the globe, a scenario that plays right into the hands of right-wing populists and their xenophobic message.

Other scientists believe Smith's statistics are nonsense and have accused him of twisting the facts. French migration researcher François Héran, for example, argues that at most, Africans will make up between 3 and 4 percent of the European population. It is also true that the overwhelming majority of Africans simply do not have the financial means  to afford the journey to the north.

But Smith does correctly depict a development that Western donor countries and aid organizations have long been playing down: In the next 30 years, the population of the African continent will more than double, from 1.2 billion people today to 2.5 billion. The result will be a population of which 50 percent will be younger than 30 years old and won't have much of a future to look forward to if the continent's economic outlook doesn't change drastically. The threat of conflict over scarce resources, land, food, water and work is very real.

World population growth is a long-term development and so abstract that it is difficult to truly comprehend. Way back in 1968, the American biologist Paul Ehrlich published his bestseller called "The Population Bomb," in which he predicted that hundreds of millions of people would starve to death as a consequence of overpopulation. In 1972, the Club of Rome published a report called "Limits to Growth," outlining the frontiers of economic and demographic expansion. Since then, though, humankind has managed to revolutionize agriculture, introducing industrial methods that have vastly increased harvests. And for the last several decades, the number of people suffering from hunger has been dropping.

The UN believes that population growth will slow by the end of this century and will come to a stop at around 11 billion people, which is welcome news, on one hand. On the other, though, that is 4 billion more people than currently live on the planet -- 4 billion people who will live predominantly in Africa and Asia, in three-dozen countries that are poorly prepared for what is coming because they are already overwhelmed with the situation as it currently stands. A team of DER SPIEGEL reporters set out to explore developments in three countries where the population is growing at a particularly rapid rate: Niger, Nigeria and India.

Liboré, Niger -- At Least 10 Children

Hamidou Moumouni is standing at the edge of his millet field, located not far from the Niger capital city of Niamey, and examining the tiny buds. "A bad harvest again," he says. The last one was also terrible because of a shortage of rain and because the soil is losing its fertility. "The earth has grown tired," says Moumouni, a gaunt 60-year-old. His green boubou, the traditional robes worn in the region, has golden embroidery, a sign of the prosperity that the farmer now fears he could be losing.

Moumouni has been through a lot in his life: droughts, flooding, plagues of locusts. But he says that what is now happening is different, that it is much larger and more threatening. "The weather has gone crazy," he says.

On the Human Development Index, compiled by the UN as a way of measuring prosperity and quality of life, Niger is last on the list of 189 countries. But on another list, the country is right at the top: Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with an average of more than seven children born to each woman. Nowhere is it more visible that a lack of development leads to extreme population growth.

Already today, the population needs more food than grows in the country's fields. In periods of extended drought, the government must import up to a million tons of grain. On its own, Niger would be able to feed perhaps 10 million people. But the country is home to 20 million, and that number is set to double by 2035 and reach fully 68 million by 2050.

Each year, 240,000 young people in Niger join the labor market and most of them are unable to read and write. The majority of the population scratches out a living from the fields. For men who remain in the country, there are primarily two ways of escaping the misery: They can get involved in smuggling drugs, weapons or migrants; or they can join a jihadist group.

A similar demographic development can be seen across the entire Sahel zone, an arid, barren region just south of the Sahara that is home to around 80 million people. By 2060, the area's population is forecast to be around 400 million.

Hamidou Moumouni heads back into his clay home, where his wife and seven children are gathered in the courtyard. The youngest of the family's four sons, two-year-old Kidirou, is sitting on the lap of his mother Faty, 40. She says she would like to have even more children. "The family," her husband says, "has to get bigger so that we are better provided for in our old age."

How, though, will his sons get by once the 12 hectares of land are divided up between them? Only the oldest son receives the inheritance, says Moumouni. The second son should find a job in government, he says, the third is to become a Koran teacher and the fourth can make his way to Europe.

And his daughters? "They should marry rich men." Nima is 13 and will likely soon be married off. Once that happens, Nima says she wants to have at least 10 children.

A Warning from Paris

"The countries in the Sahel zone are heading toward a massive catastrophe," says French economist Serge Michailof, adding that he has delivered the same message to Niger President Mahamadou Issoufou. The 67-year-old Issoufou is a social democrat who wants to tackle his country's most pressing problem: poverty. Michailof, one of the leading experts on population growth in the Sahel zone, wants to help him in that endeavor. "What we are currently experiencing," Michailof says, "is the most spectacular demographic shift in the history of mankind."

Graphic: Projected population growth in select countries.

Graphic: Projected population growth in select countries.


The author of the book "Africanistan: Development or Jihad," Michailof has long been familiar with Niger and lived in the country himself for five years in the 1980s; his apartment in Paris is full of mementos from Africa, including numerous figures carved out of stone or wood. Together with a colleague, Michailof has written a study about the country's economic prospects.

"Issoufou was shocked by the demographic forecasts for the next 30 years," Michailof says. The meeting between the two, originally set to last an hour, ultimately went on for four hours and ended with the president inviting the economist to attend a cabinet meeting.

"There, too, demography was the focus," says Michailof. "But we were never able to say anything because everybody was yelling over each other." Some of the ministers, he says, insisted that children represented the country's future, no matter how many of them families had. Others said that drastic measures were necessary, such as establishing a maximum number of children allowed, like China did. Such an idea is absurd, others said, arguing that devout Muslims in the country would never accept such an arrangement and making enemies with them would be dangerous.

"There was no consensus," says Michailof. "Furthermore, the country's institutions are too weak and they have too few resources to act effectively." Michailof believes that famine will be the ultimate outcome, exacerbated by climate change.

Kano, Nigeria -- The Evangelists of Boko Haram

Isa Hashim, a deputy emir of Kano, is a religion scholar and sharia judge, a powerful and educated 85-year-old. He wears a white turban and his shoes are decorated with ostrich feathers. He receives guests in the emir's palace, with supplicants on the cold marble at his feet.

The deputy emir is also happy to hold an audience with foreigners, acting aloof initially before speaking openly in perfect English about Africa's demographic problems, polygamy and birth control. Such topics were considered taboo here just a few years ago and those who brought them up were suspected of harboring colonialist intentions of destroying the peoples of Africa. Now, though, Hashim has made those issues his own: "Reform must come from within," he says. "We have to change the system. The time has come."

Kano, a city of over 3 million in northern Nigeria, is located in the region where the terror group Boko Haram operates. Just 500 kilometers (311 miles) from here in the city of Chibok, the radical Islamists kidnapped 276 girls in 2014. That reality is one reason why Hashim has now begun speaking openly of the link between poverty and terrorism. And why he grumbles about "selfish men who collect wives like objects, curse birth control but then ask me quietly for the address of someone who can take care of the problem."

Hashim says that all of Nigeria must introduce modern, Western-style education into the country's school system -- a revolutionary message in a region that is so poor and uneducated that extremists have an easy time of recruiting new followers.

They can be found squatting in the dust just two kilometers from the palace, boys between the ages of five and 18, writing Koran suras on wooden tablets in black ink and praying out loud. For these children, the madrassa represents their only chance of receiving an education. But it is limited: They learn neither mathematics nor writing in their own language.

In the afternoons, the younger boys go begging while the older ones perform day jobs for their masters, who treat them like slaves. At night, they all sleep together in chambers next to the mosque, until the first call to prayer wakes them in the morning.

The number of these facilities is on the rise, a reality that is beneficial to the terrorists. And listening to Tukur, the 19-year-old son of a farmer with thick, black curls, it becomes clear just how great the danger is. Tukur feels poorly treated by his master, who beats him, and by the neighbors, who berate him with insults. He says he will one day demand what society is currently withholding from him: recognition and power. Tukur then turns around without a word, washes his hands, face and feet and hurries off to the next prayer.

Berlin -- Empowering Women to Save the World

"Before we get completely frantic, there are also countries in the world that have developed much better than expected," says Reiner Klingholz, 65, director of the Berlin Institute for Population and Development. He has a more optimistic view of global development than the former Africa correspondent, Stephen Smith. Vietnam is such an example, says Klingholz, or Ethiopia, the "African wonderland," which for the last 15 years has experienced annual economic growth rates that have at times exceeded 10 percent.

The country has also seen fertility rates drop in the last two decades from around seven children per woman to four, an exception for sub-Saharan Africa. That primarily is a function of the country's economic upswing, growth rates that are among the fastest in the world. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created and harvests have improved. The government invests a huge amount in education and health care.

It is an encouraging development: The number of people living in extreme poverty has been halved. If Ethiopia's development continues and the government maintains its current course, the country could disprove the Cassandras and become a model for Africa.

Or Bangladesh, a primarily Muslim country that was considered to be hopelessly poor and overpopulated in 1971 when it split off from Pakistan following a civil war. Today, Bangladesh is basically on the right path, Klingholz says, in part because there, too, the birthrate has plunged to around 2.1 children per woman. And, he says, because the government has allowed aid organizations, with the support of international backers, to help out with education and health care. Even in the most remote parts of the country, family planning programs have been in place for years, ensuring that women there receive the same care and consultation as in the cities.

"Never has a country anywhere in the world developed without first slowing population growth," says Klingholz. Three steps are necessary, he says, to avoid a demographic catastrophe: The countries in question must first improve health care and reduce infant mortality rates. "If more children survive, people eventually make the decision themselves to have fewer children."

Second, they have to invest in education, particularly for girls. "That is the most effective contraceptive that exists," says Klingholz. In African countries with high rates of population growth, it has become clear that women who have completed secondary school have up to two-thirds fewer children than those who have never attended school. Countries that are doing better today are those that have empowered and educated women.

The third step is the most difficult: A country that wants to slow population growth has to be creative and create jobs. "People need to have prospects," he says. "Otherwise they have no life plan, and without a life plan, there is no family plan."

Bangalore, India -- Three Generations, Three Stories

In a few years, India will take over from China as the world's most populous country. By the middle of the century, it will be home to more than 1.6 billion people, though precise projections vary. It is an almost frightening number, but it doesn't have to be, because India is a country that is doing many things right.

Within 40 years, the birth rate in India has plunged by more than 50 percent to 2.2 children per woman. Assuming the trend continues, the population will continue growing until 2050 -- and will then cease. Some changes can already be seen today, primarily in the south, which tends to be more prosperous than the north and which has a lower birth rate, especially in the cities.

In a district in northern Bangalore stands a house that looks no different from many that surround it: two floors, flat roof and narrow windows. It is home to a large family of nine. They are hardly wealthy, but they aren't poor either. Their story is one shared by many families in the area, and it is one that makes it clear how much has changed. Three generations are sitting in the living room: grandmother Savithri, 74, wrapped in an orange sari; daughter-in-law Alka, 39, dressed in a long robe; and granddaughter Preethi, 18, in tight jeans, her eyes fixed to her smartphone.

Savithri married at 19 and had her first child, a daughter, two years later. Two more girls and two boys would follow. When asked if that's what she had wanted, she says: "It wasn't about what I wanted, it just happened."

Her daughter-in-law Alka shakes her head. She, too, married young and also had a daughter at 21. But for her and her husband, having more than two children was out of the question. She hesitates for a bit before saying: "Yes, we used birth control."

Women in India want to have fewer children than they used to, a development that can be seen at all levels of society. Part of the phenomenon has to do with urbanization: the birth rate in Bangalore is 1.6, in Mumbai it is 1.4 and it is 1.7 in Delhi. They are essentially equivalent to the European average, but rural areas in the country exhibit similarly low birthrates.

Savithri went to school for six years while Alka went to university for three years after completing school. Preethi, meanwhile, is still in 12th grade at a private school. Once she finishes, she plans to study business and then work "an office job with a good salary" for two years. She then wants to go back to university -- she calls it her "education plan."

Preethi will have a life much different from that of her mother and grandmother. Her parents, too, will insist on marriage, but she realized early on how the world works: "A woman's education determines her place in society."

An Attempt at a Conclusion

There is no clear prescription for countries facing demographic explosion. A decisive factor will be whether governments finally take the demographic challenges seriously and invest in the education and health-care sectors, in comprehensive sex-education campaigns and in family planning programs. At the same time, they will have to create jobs to provide millions of young people with at least a modicum of prosperity.

That is much easier said than done, particularly given the incompetent and corrupt regimes in many African countries. But a country like Ethiopia is showing one possible path for doing so -- a country that just a few years ago was seen as hopelessly over-populated and suffered from frequent famines. Still, most countries on the continent are far away from the progress that Ethiopia has made. But might the West have a role to play in helping countries confront their demographic time bombs?

Serge Michailof, the government adviser from Paris, has a few ideas. "The countries that are most exposed to the population crisis badly need investment in the agriculture sector," he says. That is true, he says, of those countries in both Africa and Asia in which the majority of the population lives from farming and raising livestock.

They need fair conditions, he says, and a plan for confronting the challenges of global warming. Modernizing agricultural practices, Michailof believes, is the most effective way of combatting hunger and creating jobs.

Furthermore, the adviser says, functioning state institutions are vital: "A credible and disciplined army, a police force that respects human rights and an incorruptible judiciary, so that people don't organize into militant organizations." Because without a minimum of stability, he says, development aid makes no sense. "If the police can't guarantee security, then children won't go to school."

Once these conditions are fulfilled, once children have enough to eat and can go to school without fear, then miracles are possible even in countries where the situation appears hopeless. Miracles such as the one that has taken place in Ethiopia, a country which may have positioned itself to profit from a demographic dividend: fewer births, not too many elderly and a large number of people with jobs. When looked at through that lens, the many young men and women in Africa are not a millstone around the continent's neck, but its hope for the future. They may even be able to disprove the pessimists, assuming they are able to overcome the huge hurdles to development in their countries: terrible governance, the power of tradition and the predominance of the old, male guard.