Linking demography with conflict, labour markets, and climate change

Published on 8 February 2021

Image of Evert-jan Quak

Evert-jan Quak

Research Officer

High population growth, as witnessed in many sub-Saharan African countries, has major implications on development outcomes. Three reports from the IDS-led Knowledge, Evidence and Learning for Development Programme (K4D) show this by looking at the implications for conflict, climate change, and labour markets. They conclude that population dynamics should be better understood and considered within development policies, strategies, and programmes.

Many sub-Saharan African countries are in the first phases of a demographic transition. Because the fertility rates decline at a slow pace compared to other regions in the world who have already gone through similar transitions, and because mortality rates started to decline earlier and more rapidly than fertility rates, sub-Saharan Africa faces significant population growth for the foreseeable future. The United Nations estimate that the population of sub-Saharan Africa will double between 2020 and 2050 (a growth of around 1 billion).

Within the K4D Learning Journey on Supporting a Demographic Transition in sub-Saharan Africa, a series of three reports have been published on the implications of population dynamics for three important development issues for the region. The first report explores the linkages between demography and conflict. The second report studies how interventions in the drivers of the demographic transition (e.g., family planning, education) have the potential to be used as climate resilience measures. The third report in this series, investigates the evidence on how population growth and age structure impacts on employment and labour productivity.

Population growth is seen in most development models and strategy as a fixed number, which will not change significantly in the short- and medium-term. Although this might be true, the three reports show that population dynamics should be considered as an endogenous factor for development. In this way, population growth is measured as a variable that can be influenced by interventions that improve access to, and quality of, voluntary family planning, girls’ education, and women’s empowerment, to accelerate a demographic transition.

Age structure and conflict

There seems to be strong evidence that young age structure and population growth are contributing factors to conflict. Some studies argue that for each percentage point increase in youth bulges, the risk of conflict increases by more than 4 per cent. When youth make up more than 35 per cent of the adult population the risk of conflict is very high. However, youth bulge by itself is not the main factor that increases the risk of violence and conflict; rather, ‘it is a lack of the opportunities that support the transition from childhood to adulthood’ . The opportunity costs of insurgency are decreased by limited opportunities, particularly for the youth, as large youth cohorts stretch the limits of labour, education, and healthcare systems.

Population growth and labour markets

The fast-growing population in sub-Saharan Africa is likely to affect the ability of entrants to the labour markets to get productive jobs and, in turn, generate economic growth. The lack of structural transformation is an important factor that significantly limits the ability of the labour market to absorb all new entrants. This has resulted in an ‘underemployment’ crisis across the region, characterised by poor quality of work and low rates of productivity. Evidence demonstrates that population growth itself is a barrier to accomplish a structural transformation of the labour force towards higher labour productivity. ‘A large youth cohort lowers output-per-worker, because investments in physical and human capital struggle to outpace the growing population’.

This affects workers (men and women) with lower levels of education the most, who over their working life continue to struggle to increase their productivity, keeping them in low paid, insecure jobs. Women face an extra barrier as high fertility rates (estimated at 4.8 births per woman in sub-Saharan Africa) reduce their years of productive participation. From a young age, many combine unpaid care for children with informal and low productive work in agriculture or family enterprises. The estimation is a reduction of 1.9 years of productive participation per woman for each child, which clearly restrains African women’s ability to move into more productive work.

Accelerating a demographic transition

African political leaders have perceived population growth to be socially, economically, and politically advantageous. There are signs of increasing political interests to address population growth now there is emerging evidence that a consistent decline in fertility rates, when accompanied by a decline in mortality, is economically beneficial. This ‘window of opportunity’ (also referred to as a ‘demographic dividend’) relates to the momentum created by a declining proportion of children under 15 years old who are dependent on a rising proportion of the working-age population. In theory, the literature shows that lower dependency ratios should increase productivity or would lead to a rise in income per capita over time. An increase in prosperity and opportunities for youth, therefore, could reduce the possibility of violent conflicts.

Savings rates stay low

Findings of macro simulation models show that a small reduction in the size of a youth cohort does not translate into sizeable labour market gains per se. Such a demographic shift needs to be accompanied by strong investment in human capital to gain sustained productivity growth, higher incomes, and higher GDP per capita. If not, gains of a lower dependency ratio will fade away within one generation. The problem for sub-Saharan Africa is that the models show that capital per worker is not expected to increase substantially in the coming decades, because savings will stay low for a longer time, making a surge in domestic investment unlikely. In other words, the region seems too poor for a quick rise in savings. The biggest gains come much later, due to multiplier effects of accumulated investment in strategically important physical and human capital, particularly girls’ education.

Demography and climate change

Hence, there is emerging evidence that rapid population growth in sub-Saharan Africa has a considerable impact on human development, provision of basic services, and poverty. Climate change is thought to amplify these issues, making future development outcomes increasingly uncertain. Importantly, areas of high population growth, high fertility, and high unmet family planning needs in sub-Saharan Africa overlap with regions of high climate vulnerability. As such, rapid population growth has a negative impact on the resilience of communities and their ability to adapt to climate change, particularly in parts of the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, and central Africa. In other words, interventions contributing to a voluntary reduction in fertility are more appropriate in resilience-building and adaptation efforts but unlikely to be an adequate core approach to climate mitigation globally.

Girls’ education

Girls’ education is positive for both climate adaptation and mitigation. Education can positively affect adaptive capacity and increase resilience. ‘Girls’ education (especially to secondary level) has been put forward as one of the most cost-effective mitigation strategies, alongside family planning – with these being complementary’. Education is also a key factor in mitigating conflict risk, but only if the existing labour market can accommodate the newly educated population. If it cannot, the lack of opportunities for educated young people may become a driver of conflict risk.

As demography intersects with many important development outcomes in sub-Saharan Africa, it could benefit to mainstream it within programmes and strategies, aiming to accelerate the demographic transition.


Supported by
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