When German Chancellor Angela Merkel toured three African nations this week for talks on curbing migration to Europe, the leader of the world’s poorest country, Niger, suggested it would take a “Marshall Plan” of massive aid to stop people coming.
Merkel politely declined the request, expressing concern about how well the aid would be spent and noting that, at a summit in Malta last year, the European Union had already earmarked 1.8 billion euros for a trust fund to train and resettle migrants.
But Niger’s President Mahatma Issoufou also proposed something perhaps more significant, in the long run, than a development package–bringing Niger’s population growth down from 3.9 percent, the highest in the world.
Though he gave no details on how this could be achieved, demography clearly holds the key both to Europe’s migration crisis and to the African poverty feeding it. As long as population growth in African countries outstrips their ability to educate, house and employ their citizens, large numbers of people will continue to brave the deserts and seas to escape.
Niger, a vast, largely desert nation to the north of Nigeria, presents the starkest example of Africa’s challenges.
With an average of 7.6 children born to each woman, its population is projected to more than triple to 72 million by 2050, from about 20 million now, according to the latest U.N. figures. By then, Africa will have more than doubled its population to 2.4 billion, the United Nations says.
Frequent droughts in Niger cause hunger, and low investment in education means a dearth of skills. Yet somehow it must hugely increase food production just to stay where it is.
Ironically, Niger’s location in the largely unpoliced sands of the Sahara also makes it a draw for migrants. They come from across Africa hoping to be smuggled to a better life in Libya or Algeria–or over the Mediterranean to Europe.
In doing so, the migrants bring cash to Niger, a country that has repeatedly proved unable to feed itself.
In 2013, Niger’s corruption investigators did a study on smuggling that was never published, but which Reuters has seen. It said Niger’s security forces make almost half a million CFA francs ($850) from every round trip by a smuggling truck–just from migrants alone, not including payoffs from the gangs.
According to a theory popular with investment bankers and management consultants, Africa’s population woes will solve themselves. Africa, they say, will reap a “demographic dividend” as its bulging youth population drives innovation and consumer markets–as happened to Asia in decades past.
The latest commodity crash highlighted reasons for being less optimistic: Africa remains over-dependent on raw materials and has failed to create the manufacturing or service jobs that helped drive Asia forwards.
And despite predictions, economic growth hasn’t significantly cut birth rates in most African countries.