This week, something big is happening in Abidjan. Eighty-three heads of state from Africa and the European Union will meet at the triennial AU-EU Summit, alongside 5,000 staffers, journalists and civil society representatives. The decisions made at this summit will be crucial to ensuring young people in Africa have the opportunity to flourish as their countries undergo rapid changes.
Call for increased funding for girls' education Africa is in the midst of what the African Development Bank has called a ‘demographic boom’*. By 2050, the youth population on the continent is expected to reach 830 million, an enormous rise of 100% from current levels. Plan International has been calling on donors and governments to increase their spending on education, to meet the needs of this growing youth population.
The summit’s focus is “investment in youth for accelerated inclusive growth and sustainable development”. Several solutions are touted as key to achieving this aim in an era of rapid population growth – among them innovation, infrastructure, tackling capital flight and facilitating access to credit and business capital. These are indeed all vital. However precedent shows that the most crucial way to ensure a demographic shift delivers inclusive growth is to expand access to education and family planning services, particularly for girls and young women.
A looming demographic boom
By 2050, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is likely to increase by over 1 billion people* from 2017 levels. With the population of other regions of the world predicted to be roughly stationary or even contract, a quarter of the world’s people will be African, compared to 16% today.
A girl who has up-to-date skills and knowledge can better contribute to her community and country as a leader.
This will be accompanied by stark changes in the demographic age structure. Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa will experience a trebling of their working-age population by 2050, and a 3 to 5-fold increase in the number of people above the age of 65*.
This unprecedented growth in working-age population will provide conditions for a window of accelerated economic growth known as a demographic dividend. But without the right policy environment and legal framework, shifting demographics could have a stalling or even destructive effect on sustainable development.
Applying the lessons of history
One benefit of Africa’s delayed population increase is that governments in the region can learn from historical precedent in East Asia. From the 1960s to the 1990s, many countries in East Asia experienced their own demographic boom, with a sharp spike in population growth followed by a fall in fertility rate. This was accompanied by a period of dramatic economic growth: in the 3 decades to 1995, per capita income in East Asia increased by a remarkable 6% each year, lifting tens of millions out of poverty*.
A critical factor in much of the economic success that accompanied East Asia’s population boom was expanded access to education* at all levels, particularly for girls. Another important contributor to East Asia’s demographic dividend was a strong focus on family planning* by government and donors, in the form of large-scale programmes and campaigns.
Prioritise girls’ education – now
A girl who has up-to-date skills and knowledge can better contribute to her community and country as a leader, innovator, thinker and problem-solver. Yet girls are currently being held back by a gender gap in access to and completion of education. For each level of education in sub-Saharan Africa, the level of access for females* is lower than for males. Gender parity ratios in completion are even lower, with only 38% of girls in Mali completing primary school and just 1% of girls in Burkina Faso* completing secondary school.
A school education provides so much more than academic learning. Education is a bridge to gender equality, building girls’ self-esteem, skills and networks, and equipping them to take on leadership roles in their schools, communities and broader societies. There is a wealth of evidence to show that improving gender equality will have a ripple effect across all other development areas and benefit societies as a whole by improving peace and security, environmental sustainability and overall public health.
Governments around the world – not only in sub-Saharan Africa – must commit to a step-change in education financing. This is why Plan International is calling on donor countries to scale up financing to the Global Partnership for Education to $2 billion annually by 2020, as recommended by The International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. And why we are also calling on national governments in Africa to increase their spending on education to 6% of GDP.
A moment of opportunity
The UNFPA estimates that the demographic dividend across sub-Saharan Africa could be worth at least $500 billion per year for up to 30 years*. Yet this demographic dividend will only materialise if governments across the continent adopt policies that expand opportunities for young people, particularly girls and young women.
That is why decisions made at this AU-EU Summit this week are so important. The assembled heads of state have the opportunity to determine whether Africa’s ‘demographic boom’ presents an opportunity or a threat. By prioritising girls’ rights and gender equality, governments will be able to create their own ’tiger’ economies, and translate population growth into a new era of economic and social development to 2030 and beyond.
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