I spent eight years of my life living in several of the countries mentioned, including Nigeria and Ethiopia, and I'd caution commentators and UN demographers, alike, against saying things about "Africa." Africa is the single most ethnically and politically diverse continent in the world. You simply cannot say things about it as a collective. And you cannot really make useful comparisons with other regions, either. Africa is something apart.

As noted in this essay, you cannot even say things about a single country--like Ethiopia--as a monolith: The hundreds of mostly-Addis-based young Ethiopians that I worked with, befriended, and had so many conversations with over my years there had a radically different set of aspirations and assumptions than even their (still young) parents did. Now I have since seen most of them get married (at a much later age) and have children (but not more than a couple). This is an anecdotal, self-sorting group of urban, educated people, but they evince the behavior you'd expect from the standard demographic transition model.

But, venturing into the hinterlands of Ethiopia (still an overwhelmingly rural society), I found that you entered a truly confounding realm of people whose basic beliefs weren't just the opposite of yours, but based in a whole different set of axioms that fit entirely outside of Western dichotomies. I'm not sure that demographers properly account for this "X factor" in modelling sociological behavior. Most people in the most populous African countries are more like this latter group than the former. Even in "megacities" like Lagos, you find that the majority of people are transplanted, but essentially unchanged.

Urbanization in African countries is accelerating, but there's something quite unique about it that isn't present in Asia, Latin America, or even North Africa: rural-to-urban migrants aren't getting richer. The boosterism about the "vast emerging middle class of African Lions" is overstated. Urban Nigerians, Congolese, and Tanzanians aren't being incorporated into light industry like the workers riding the wave of development in the "Asian Tigers" and China. They aren't connected to globalization or even, really, to regionalization. They continue to exist in an economic and cultural archipelago. They are, in essence, recreating village life in vast, chaotic conurbations. They may make ends meet as precarious, low-level service workers instead of as subsistence farmers, but they aren't changed by a shift toward middle-income wealth, formalized wage-employment, education, access to social services, or even really connection to wider horizons of information and culture. And, they are continuing to make family planning decisions based on totally different criteria than you'd expect.

Expand full comment

>Africa is the single most ethnically and politically diverse continent in the world.

What the HELL are you talking about?

Have you ever heard of ASIA?

You think there's more ethnic diversity in Africa than between Koreans and Sri Lankans and Yemenis?

You think there's more political diversity than between communism, liberal democracy and theocratic absolute monarchy?

Expand full comment

In short, yes. This is an incontrovertible fact. And not surprising when you consider that humanity emerged from Africa and have occupied the continent for the longest time of anywhere else:

Take your pick for sources:



Here's a very accessible amateur explanation of why you might find this surprising: https://www.reddit.com/r/biology/comments/u0xncu/why_is_africa_the_most_diverse_continent_even/?rdt=51872

TL;DR - 1/ Genes that are expressed in outward appearance are a very small percentage of our genetic diversity. 2/ But also, Africans look a lot different than you probably think, but that's something that is under-appreciated when you just think that they're all just Black (and therefore similar-looking).

Expand full comment

Genetically diverse =/= ethnically diverse

Genetically diverse =/= phenotypically diverse (phenotype importantly including behavioral characteristics)

>Genes that are expressed in outward appearance are a very small percentage of our genetic diversity

More genetically diverse does not mean more diversity in non-physical traits either.

>2/ But also, Africans look a lot different than you probably think, but that's something that is under-appreciated when you just think that they're all just Black (and therefore similar-looking).

How many ethnic groups in africa look as different to one another as Han chinese and Indian Santals?

And it's not enough for there to be some people that look different. An African selected at random will look much, much, much more similar to another african seleceted at random, on average, than two randomly selected "Asians" will. The only major source of variation, numerically, is north africa. But of course, articles like this aren't even relevant to north africa (richer and lower fertility than a majority of african nations), so its not relevant.

But if we're including north african arabs as part of africa's ethnic diversity, then congratulations, you've just "proven" that the US is the most ethnically diverse country on earth, because there's representatives of literally almost every ethnic group on earth living there.

Also, good job ignoring the political part.

Expand full comment

Another "X factor" that demographers are totally ignoring is Climate Change. If the likeliest scenarios for Climate Change this century are correct, we're facing a world that will be 3C+ warmer within the lifetime of people living today. That average conceals some divergent local effects, which will (and already has) hit Sub-Saharan Africa in devastating ways. By the time that UN demographers expect Africa to double in population, a large swath of it will become essentially unliveable. How do we reconcile this? We're to expect Nigeria, a Germany-sized country that already suffers from extreme heat, flooding, desiccation, poverty, and inability to feed itself is going to maintain a larger human population than the United States in a few decades? That's frankly just impossible. It's an open question whether Nigeria will even be able to support its current overpopulation, much less double it.

Expand full comment

They will because if a famine occurs this will trigger int aid. Seems high fertility is a status thing in Africa

Expand full comment

DHS (and other) evidence make it clear that the policies followed by different states in Africa can make a very big difference to total fertility rates. Teenage pregnancy, drop out rates from school and insufficient investment in Primary Health Care (especially in the distribution of contraception) all mean that some girls may have rather little 'choice', or ability to determine their own fertility. Your fashionable reluctance to offer advice to African women should not prevent you from criticizing the influence of American churches and their political supporters in the USA; their funding decisions, conditionality and cuts condemn millions of women and their children to shorter and less healthy lives.

Now that you have begun to pay attention to topics neglected by so many economists and economic historians, you might wish to dig a little deeper into the complexity of economic development in the sub-continent by looking at:


Expand full comment

Spot on. There is a veritable religious crusade inflicted upon Africa, replacing indigenous, syncretic or traditional religious beliefs with most rigid versions of Christianity and Islam. Both of these are hostile to any family planning in any form. Funding for this Wahhabization and evangelization is well organized, and is done to undermine any secular leaning government in Africa.

The result will not be pretty - hundreds of millions of young males with little education, no jobs, few prospects to advancement can only result in two things: never-ending internal wars (including religious, see CAR) and mass emigration towards the north. Both of these are already happening but I don't see how they won't become even more acute. This will have repercussions first and foremost on EU, which will not survive another million-wave of refugees or immigrants.

Expand full comment

I'm curious as to these indigenous african religious traditions that aren't pro-fertility

Expand full comment

As Geoffrey Greene and Robert Schaeffer have noted above, the demographic projections don't appear to take into account either climate change nor some unpleasant commodity disruptions (fuel, fertilizer and food) possibly emanating from war and sanctions in Europe. Both could lead to massive social and political upheaval in the global south, not least in Africa itself.

Expand full comment

"Speaking in medias res, you may wonder whether as a middle-aged white guy who has only been to Africa twice and has no claim to expertise I feel comfortable writing about the contraceptive choices of young African women. No - let me reassure you - I do not! Clearly it is not my place, or anyone like me, to be either authoritative or prescriptive."

A few years ago Macron lightly touched on the issue of African fertility and the international overclass that has fits over climate change and too many white people had a hissy fit and told him to shut up.

Inadvertenlty your "white boy apology" contained in the paragraph above may explain much as to the overpopulation. The combination of antibiotics and modern agriculture can be so disruptive to a society....if that society does not come around and integrating the consequences of the resulting increased fertility.

At some point, much of the world, probably Europe given its proximity to Africa, will have to deal with the effects of it cultural/social secular fundamentalism.

Expand full comment

I’m someone who studied demography and epidemiology at LSHTM in the mid ‘80s and worked for several years on the Demographic and Health Survey project. I’ve also spend around 25 years in Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda and Somalia in deeply rural and in cities and I’ve thought a lot about the issues. Nairobi and it’s surroundings and Addis Ababa, as I gather Paice highlights, are beacons for the transition in Africa. Like Geoffrey Greene I also have many middle class friends from areas where the transition happened as fast as anywhere else recorded and I have discussed these demographic issues with them over the years. I have not read Paice’s most recent book but enjoyed his Cape to Cairo book.

One thing I learned about the demographic transition at LSHTM is that mortality often declines considerably later than the downward trend in fertility. The prime example of this is France where it is thought fertility first started declining in modern recorded history on a population scale. The information for this comes from the European Fertility Project led by Ansley Coale and colleagues at Princeton and summarized in the book “The Decline of Fertility in Europe” Edited by Coale, A. And Watkins, S.C. Princeton University Press 1986. This same project revealed that in the UK fertility and mortality started declining simultaneously starting circa 1870 - not earlier as you mention in the F.P review unless I am way out of date. Why is it that it is fixed in the popular psyche that mortality has to come down before fertility? I speculate that it’s public health people and scientific journalists that have fed off each other rather than going back to the evidence.

Going to the Nigeria DHS one can see that in some parts of Nigeria the demographic transition is well under way in the coastal part of the country and especially in Lagos. Lagos seems to be roughly where Nairobi and Addis were twenty years ago. In the north there is very little evidence of change.

I put my colors close to the theory that people want large numbers of children (say 6 plus) if they live in a relatively chaotic environment where there is little trust in the state to keep the peace. The children become the family social security unit. If things go haywire the children are the last line of defense. Where people live with a modicum of stability - trust in the ability of the state to maintain security, and the ability to field decent services like schools where children actually learn something and health services that work and pensions (not uncommon in places like Addis and Nairobi) - then they ratchet back and invest in fewer children and try and get them through a decent education. So female education and empowerment is part of this story yet I think my summary is a bit more subtle and requires a more sophisticated approach by states that have the energy to try and turn things around where the pace of change is thought to be slow.

Which comes to my conclusion. It is where people have the feeling that they can trust the state to keep the peace and steadily build “societal basics” like quality schooling and health care, and pensions that the transition will likely accelerate. This takes political stability and leadership around development objectives. A good recent example is Ethiopia where the use of modern contraceptives has gone up from 14 to 41 per cent between the 2005 and the 2019 DHS. The political leadership dragging the civil service and wider society behind it and backed by development partners led to this remarkable change. The current DG of the World Health Organisation was one of the leading lights in this remarkable change.

It is hard to predict the broad brush stroke future for population numbers across Africa as a whole. If the current 1.4 billion is to become 2.2-2.5 billion then one has to believe that climate change and changes in commodity prices are not going to be big factors over the next 20 years. The UN demographers who draw those lines make no pretense at looking into the tea leaves. What we do know is that any projection beyond five years or so is futile when there are so many dynamic feedback loops at play. Personally I fear for the future of the poor in much of West Africa unless political leadership can step-up and turn things around. For now, the slow growth of rebel movements across the Sahel signals an opposing trend.

Expand full comment

National governments in the "Developed World' have the opportunity to individually support both the African economies and their own by investing in training and development in the technological areas and languages that allow easy assimilation into their own economies. It's an easy call that German language and engineering training in Nigeria would create a win win situation. Recognizing that climate effects are also a key consideration training programs need to be organized in a climate controlled environment that increases the success rates of these training programs

Expand full comment

This is delusional. Basic literacy and numeracy is lacking in vast swathes of the population - the ones capable of receiving technical education largely already are (or have left africa).

Expand full comment

To add another angle, this recent study:

Tax Aversion and the Social Contract in Africa


'Despite the low levels of taxation and public good provision in Africa, I provide evidence that a large proportion of Africans prefer lower taxation and fewer public goods. This cannot be explained by standard arguments about problems of accountability, governance or state capacity. Instead I argue that it reflects deeply seated ideas about the nature of the state and its potential threats to the autonomy of society. I show the historic social contracts in Africa rarely featured taxation and kept the state to limited jurisdictions. These social contracts have in many ways reproduced themselves and influence the way Africa is governed today.'

Expand full comment

I wouldn't say that Africa never had a prominent place in history. It is, of course, where human history had it's start. Beyond the pre-civilizational period, there have been many internationally notable African civilizations: Egypt, Kush, Mali, and many others. The record on Africa's history has also be woefully destroyed and underrepresented by colonial forces

Expand full comment

>The record on Africa's history has also be woefully destroyed and underrepresented by colonial forces

This is a wild assumption on your part. Most of Africa never had written language, so there were no records to destroy. And european colonists were not in the business of destroying things like that in any case. There is no reason whatever to assume that Africa had prominent civilizations that we don't know about, especially not because of colonial destruction.

Expand full comment

Imagine the equivalent of Somali pirates pushing out from Africa in all directions

Expand full comment

Great, insightful piece as always.

The point made (as I read with my biases) that one needs to learn to look past one’s biases and try to at least suss out the POV of those being observed as opposed to forcing the data to fit the template of our own biases should be primary in assessing things and framing policy. Safe to say that it rarely is.

Expand full comment

Thank you very much prof Tooze for another amazing essay.

I am curious about the last few paragraphs of your essay (post '****') - it appears you foreclose any possibility of social scientific endeavor? The Emic/Etic debate is 130+ years old in anthropology, but rarely (never?) does it come to the notion that the only viable analysis of a particular topic is by those within the group being studied. Seems to abrogate the notion of 'Science'.

Thanks again!


Expand full comment

You have to admit the growth projections for Nigeria alone are astounding. And never is there speak of a middle class for any African nation, when it comes to the global news. It isn't hard to see the problems in Africa that will remain well thru this century. As we moved into the 21st century, one goal was to create a world middle class, as the middle class tends to not have as many babies as the poor would. That was more for India and China. Africa was simply never in the equation.

Expand full comment