Niall Ferguson: How Africa Is Primed for Economic Take Off

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.

When Scottish missionary David Livingstone first glimpsed Victoria Falls in 1855, he was awestruck: "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." Amen.

Forget Niagara. When you stand on the banks of the mighty Zambezi just before it thunders over the cliffs and into the ravine below, you tremble at the vast and pitiless power of nature.

I first came to this place 10 years ago, retracing my boyhood hero Livingstone’s footsteps. On this visit, however, I was more concerned with Africa’s future than with its past.

In the years that lie before us, a great struggle will play out south of the Sahara: a struggle between man and Malthus. According to the Rev. Thomas Malthus’s famous principle—sometimes called the Malthusian trap—population grows geometrically, but the supply of food increases arithmetically. Viewed in those terms, many African countries today seem doomed to misery and vice. Between now and 2050, according to the United Nations, the population of Africa will increase by 965 million. Approximately two fifths of the total increase in world population will happen here. It is unlikely that African agriculture will be able to keep pace.

Here in Zambia the average woman has a total of 5.8 births, one of the highest rates in the world. With that kind of reproduction, it’s no wonder the population of Africa has increased by more than 260 percent since the 1960s. How many African countries have increased their agricultural production by that much? Answer: 11, and Zambia isn’t one of them.

A fifth of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is aged between 15 and 24, one of history’s biggest youth bulges. I asked the recently elected vice president of Zambia what his biggest problem was. He sighed. "Jobs. Somehow creating jobs for all these young people."

So is Africa heading over a demographic waterfall? Maybe not...

comments powered by Disqus