As Nairobi hosts the 25th International Conference on Population Development (ICPD+25) from Tuesday to Thursday, we celebrate two milestones globally and particularly in Africa — the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and 25 years of the annual conference.
It was in an African city, Cairo, that 179 governments adopted a revolutionary programme of action that called for women’s reproductive health and rights to take centre stage in national and global development efforts.
The resulting plan of action had the core message: “The full and equal participation of women in civil, cultural, economic, political and social life, at the national, regional and international levels, and the eradication of all forms of discrimination on grounds of sex”. It has been the steering document for UNFPA’s work.
A quarter of a century later, the ICPD is in another African city, Nairobi, to review and assess the progress made and also gird up to tackle the challenges that still remain.
EMPOWER THE YOUTH
The UNFPA’s mission is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth safe and every young person’s potential fulfilled.
But while the destination is clear, the road to getting there is arduous and often full of obstacles, requiring an intimate understanding of people’s cultural mores and their fears and hopes. That requires a gentle touch, infinite patience and boundless stamina.
Africa’s population will increase from one billion in 2010 to 1.6 billion in 2030 and three billion in 2065, when there will be 531 million young people, or 30.2 per cent of the total.
I am a strong advocate of the demographic dividend and have great faith in our youth to use their originality and inventiveness to leapfrog into the 4th Industrial Revolution and usher in a new era of prosperity for the continent.
In 2016, I promoted a campaign, #PutYoungPeopleFirst, which has a reach of some 3.6 million youth on social media.
However, without an enabling environment, the demographic dividend could well turn into a demographic nightmare.
Most of the work by the UNFPA’s West and Central Africa Regional Office revolves around capturing the demographic dividend to kick-start the continent’s long-awaited economic boom.
It is, therefore, vital to change the discourse on population issues by linking demography to unmet social demands, the labour market, migration and, of course, instability.
Achieving the dividend could generate exceptional economic growth in Africa of $500 billion (Sh50 trillion) a year for 30 years, based on the Asian experience.
This unprecedented potential requires changes in the population structure, the empowerment of women and improvements to health and education.
The watchword is no longer birth control but voluntary family planning based on human rights, where individuals or couples choose the number of children they wish to have and when.
At national and continental level, coherent policies and investment in human capital are needed.
With strong international partnerships, African countries have all the resources to move the demographic dividend forward.
Again, family planning is no longer simply controlling the demographic growth of developing countries but also of social change.
Moving beyond family planning requires the empowerment of women as well as more comprehensive sexual and reproductive health measures and a massive effort to enrol girls in school.
If we can do this, virtuous circles of change are then set in motion, placing Africa in the driving seat.
However, good intentions are not enough; we must follow through with implementation.
Many countries have taken the responsibility of development in their own hands — through programmes that mirror the African Union’s Agenda 2063, among others.
But demographic forces cannot be halted; they can either be steered to a bright new future or they overwhelm us.
Let us build the future by addressing the pressing needs of the most vulnerable among us. The aim is to ensure that nothing will ever be the same again and that we leave no one behind.
Mr Ngom is UNFPA’s regional director for West and Central Africa. [email protected]