According to United Nation’s projections, Africa’s population will triple between 2000 and 2050, going from roughly 800 million to roughly 2.4 billion. It will then nearly double between 2050 and 2100, to 4.2 billion. At the end of the century, Africa is projected to have nearly as many people as all of Asia, and roughly as many as the entire world did in 1980. Nearly two out of every five people on earth in 2100 will be African.
What are the implications?
John Casterline, Robert T. Lazarus Professor in Population Studies and professor of sociology, is director of Ohio State’s Institute for Population Research (IPR), one of the premier population and health research centers in the world and one of only a handful with concentrated expertise in the demography of Africa. Casterline and a team of IPR affiliates — Samuel Clark, professor and Sarah Hayford, associate professor, sociology — are at the forefront of research investigating a broad range of population and health issues that bear on the well-being of families and communities in Africa.
The number of children the average African woman has in her lifetime remains high from a global standpoint: 4.7 children per woman in Africa compared to 2.5 children per woman globally. Due to the success in recent decades in reducing death rates in Africa (except where HIV/AIDS has taken a heavy toll), the high birth rate generates rapid population growth. Scholars and policy-makers expected Africa’s fertility to follow the path of Asian and Latin American countries in the 1960s and 1970s, where birth rates declined rapidly when women became better educated and gained access to modern contraception. Instead birth rates in Africa have remained stubbornly high, as Casterline and others have documented.
According to Casterline, the bonds and exchanges in traditional kinship systems may explain, in part, the persistence of the desire for a large number of children in many parts of Africa. “There is a need for labor, sharing of resources to take care of the family, and perpetuating the family lineage,” said Casterline. “A preference for a large family has been a central feature of many African social and cultural systems.” How to disrupt the forces that reinforce large family size in Africa? A crucial catalyst, Casterline argues in a recent volume on fertility transition in Africa, would be recognition by policymakers in Africa that the current demographic trajectory is a major obstacle to improvement in the well-being of their populations.
“The size and age structure of the population can constrain peoples’ lives or give them opportunities,” said Clark. “When mortality and fertility fall in the right sequence there is a brief time with a surplus of healthy working-age people, and this sets the stage for rapid economic growth – the so-called ‘demographic dividend.’ However, cashing in the dividend requires investment in education and a business-friendly policy environment.” Africa has the potential for a large demographic dividend.
The demographic challenge is not simply a problem of numbers. In many low- and middle-income countries most deaths happen at home and are not officially recorded or given an autopsy and cause of death. The resulting lack of information about priority diseases makes health system decision-making challenging. In much of Africa, researchers rely on verbal autopsy as the method to ascertain the probable cause of death. Although imperfect, it is the best alternative in the absence of autopsy and medical certification.
“Something like two thirds to three quarters of the world’s deaths don’t get recorded,” said Clark. “Cause-of-death information is some of the most basic and most essential for informing public health policy, estimating the burden of disease and planning health services.”
Clark, who has conducted research on the population impact of HIV is a member of the World Health Organization’s Verbal Autopsy Working Group — researchers, data users and other stakeholders — who are developing standards for verbal autopsy. With colleagues at Ohio State, other universities and in Africa, Clark is developing statistical methods for automated cause of death assignment using verbal autopsy data.
Migration is currently at the center of fierce debates between the mainly poor sending countries, many in Africa, and the richer receiving nations. But what happens to the children of those families when an adult must migrate to another country for work? Hayford, who has been studying family structure across a wide variety of countries for more than 10 years, is addressing this issue as part of a five-year, $5 million study funded by the National Institutes for Health.
“Migration is an increasing global phenomenon affecting individuals and families in most regions of the world,” said Hayford. “However, there is limited understanding of how these dynamics influence the lives of children and adolescents beyond the material impact on household economies.”
Drawing on theoretical frameworks of migration, child development and the early life course, Hayford and 15 project personnel from across four countries will examine how migration of family members alter children’s development, aspirations, education and subsequent life course transitions. “Does the presence of a migrant in the household change the way young children and teenagers think about their future? Do they envision a future at all?”
New information gathered on the role of familial migration and children’s development can help inform programs and policies directed at children in areas with a high prevalence of labor migration.
Globally, there are just a few university research centers with a critical mass of scholars and students conducting research on African demography. “Our vision,” said Casterline, “is to build on this momentum and catapult Ohio State into the top tier of North American universities active in Africa.
“IPR is the place to be if you want to study African demography,” said Hayford.
Ohio State’s IPR was established in 2000 with the goal of building an internationally recognized multidisciplinary population and health research center with signature strengths in family demography, reproductive health, mortality and immigration. Core funding comes from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including renewal in 2014 of a five-year NIH/NICHD
NIH support for such centers recognizes a central fact about contemporary research on population and health problems: progress and breakthroughs are made by research teams that span multiple disciplines.
IPR brings together researchers from seven colleges and 17 departments at Ohio State to examine some of the most important challenges facing families, children, adults and communities. In various ways, IPR serves as a bridge between the social science and biomedical research communities at Ohio State. IPR provides its affiliates administrative and technical assistance with research projects, maintains a large seed grant program to launch new projects and hosts a series of lectures and research seminars by local and visiting scholars.
Examples of current projects with either a domestic or international focus include:
· Contemporary parenting: how mothers and fathers share
· Whether marriage improves well-being of single mothers
· Neighborhood and social context effects on adolescent risk behavior
· Immigrants in the U.S.: health and health-risk behaviors
· Contraception and reproductive health in Ohio
· Child well-being in Ohio, with a focus on infant mortality