Dawn of Babies

The Central Statistical Agency (CSA) is going to do a recount. But it is facing a problem. The Agency wants more accuracy and thus more gadgets like tablets and power banks. But complications in importing the items have forced the Agency to postpone the 2017 national census to 2018.

The last time there was one, 10 years ago, the Agency found that Ethiopia had close to 74 million inhabitants. Today, it estimates that there are about 94 million Ethiopians. The World Bank believes that the number of people has actually passed the 100 million mark, while The Central Intelligence Agency’s World Fact Book is even more outlandish in asserting that the population size is over 105 million.

The census is thus crucial as the government needs to determine – at least where the economy is concerned – how many more jobs it has to create, how much more electricity needs to be produced and how many more tonnes of sugar it has to import, amongst others.

One thing is clear though. It is time to get a little concerned. It may be essential to conduct a census so that government bodies know the exact number of people, but the fact that the population size is exploding need not be quantified. There are more children, more commuters, less land, more job applicants, more refuse and far more demand for goods and services.

There are reasons for this, of course. One is that the average life expectancy rate had risen in 2016 to about 65 years, from under 50 when the communist junta, Dergue, were defeated two decades ago. Concurrently, there is more prosperity. Over five million people were lifted out of poverty in just half a decade leading to the 2015/16 fiscal year. And diseases like polio and malaria were either eradicated or their effects greatly reduced. In essence, and this is a good thing,  fewer people are dying.

If such good news were met with more good news, then everything would be perfect. But an excess of anything is not good, even human beings. While the infant mortality rate dramatically fell from over 100 deaths for every 1000 live births, in the early 1990s, to almost 40 in 2015, the fertility rate never really squared off. Sure, it has shown a decline (perhaps all those family planning infomercials finally paid off), but fertility rates are almost double of the world average of 2.4. At the moment, the population is snowballing by approximately 2.5 million more people.

Most of Europe, Japan and South Korea begrudge such a population growth, or something akin to it. What most countries aim for is the zero population growth, where the number of people stays the same annually. A nation may have a given amount of mortality rates and emigrants, but when these are made up for by an equal amount of births and immigrants, then there will be a sustainable population growth.

Developed countries, for instance, try to make up for low average fertility rates by taking in a particular number of migrants. Otherwise, governments give out incentives to families who have more kids in the form of taxes. When it comes to countries like Japan, where the population growth rate is in the negative, the state outright doles out cash for new parents.

Ethiopia is faced with the opposite problem – perhaps not one as acute as the unrests in some parts of the Oromia Regional State – but still a problem nonetheless. This is a country where in most aspects demand is not met by supply. Over 70pc of the employed may be engaged in farming, but the state still imports wheat from overseas. Imports are over five times as much as exports, and electricity only reaches a measly 2.3 million households. The economy is not at a stage where it can afford more demand.

And think of the sociopolitical implications as when land becomes scarce, and intercity migration becomes the norm. Or when the government cannot further fund the needs of a growing population, and even more resources are diverted into the informal sector.

So what to do?

China’s one-child policy is not the answer. Aside from the fact that it was insensitive, it did not even work. Instead, the government should look towards measures that are more ‘pull’ and less ‘push’.

Finding a solution, in this case, should not be hard, as all one has to do is take a page from the Europeans. Whatever they have done to discourage high population growth rates should serve as an anecdote for a country that is grappling with the phenomenon.

As it turns out, aside from wars or an epidemic with high casualties, empowering women could be just as capable a tool to straighten the population curve. Incentivising institutions to have more females in the workforce would encourage households to have more than one breadwinner. Affirmative actions are a good start in this regard. Empowering women to learn and work, besides the positive economic benefits it would create, will mean fewer babies and thus demand.


By Christian Tesfaye
Christian Tesfaye (christian.tesfaye@addisfortune.net) is Fortune's Op-Ed Editor whose interests run amok in both directions of print and celluloid/digital storytelling.

Published on Oct 28,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 913]



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