Uganda has world’s youngest population

CROWDED: Youthful Ugandans at a show in Kampala. PHOTO BY EDGAR R. BATTE

A new report by the US-based Population Reference Bureau reveals that over the next few decades, Uganda’s population growth rate could be the highest in the world. Evelyn Lirri analyses the report findings and what it means for Uganda.

Uganda should expect a double annual population growth rate in the next 20 years—from the current 3.4 per cent, ultimately making it the world’s fastest growing country if present trends continue. That’s according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB) of Washington D.C., which released its 2011 World Population data sheet last week.

The data sheet analysed 18 population, health and environment indicators for more than 200 countries including Uganda. Uganda’s population, which is currently estimated by the Population Secretariat at 33 million—from just 24 million when the last census was carried out a decade ago, is projected to reach 105 million people by 2050.

Higher figure
And if fertility remains unchanged—at 6.7 children per woman, this figure could jump to 145 million people within the same period. According to the PRB report, Uganda has entered into its demographic transition by reducing its once high death rate. And as a result of lower mortality but still high fertility, the country has developed a very youthful age structure.

The report reveals that Uganda has maintained its position as the world’s second youngest population after Niger, with up to 48.7 per cent of the country’s populace under the age of 15. “With half of its population aged 15 or younger, Uganda stands out as one of the world’s youngest age structures. As the world reaches seven billion, countries at the beginning of their demographic transition represent a relatively small proportion—about nine per cent—of the world’s population. However, these countries face similar development challenges,” notes the report.

Mr Jay Gribble, the vice president of PRB’s international programmes, explained that these numbers have implications for government and private sector investment if they are to ensure that the population is healthy, well-educated and employed. But a young population with more consumers than producers has enormous implications for a developing country like Uganda where there are only 1.3 working age adults for every child under the age of 14.

Yet according to the report, Uganda’s population will continue to grow because of the large number of people who are either currently at child bearing age or who will soon enter the age where they will start having children.

On the other hand, statistics from the National Development Plan show that because the population of Uganda is increasingly becoming younger, the proportion of children under 18 increased from 51 per cent in 1969 to 56 per cent by 2002.

The proportion of persons older than 60 years decreased from 5.81 per cent in 1969 to 4.6 per cent within the same period. As Mr Gribble explains, one of the factors driving Uganda’s population growth is the low use of modern contraceptives among married women, which also turns out to be lower than the average for Sub-Saharan Africa and lower than the other East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. Uganda also has higher fertility rate of 6.7 compared to Tanzania’s 5.7 or Kenya’s 4.5. In fact, Uganda’s fertility rate is the third highest in the world after Niger and Yemen.

One reason for this high fertility rate is that only about 18 per cent of Uganda’s married women between 15 and 49 use effective contraception, with injectable contraceptives, pills, and sterilisation, being the most popular methods. An additional 41 per cent of married women want to postpone or avoid pregnancy but are not using an effective family planning method.

As a driving factor for population growth, a fertility rate of 6.7 means the average Ugandan woman will have at least seven children in her lifetime, compared to the average five for Africa - a trend that would double the size of the country to 70 million people by 2030. “A strong family planning programme and political commitment to family planning would help slow Uganda’s population growth and provide more opportunities to improve the health and well-being of Uganda’s people,” said Mr Gribble.

Although Uganda has several policies and action plans that address its major population and development issues, the report reveals that these policies have not effectively addressed the country’s fertility challenges.

For instance, the 2008 population policy prioritises birth spacing and youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services while the recently launched National Population Policy Action Plan 2011-2015 focuses on sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender and family welfare.

Population experts point out that the poor social services Ugandans are getting are as a result of the population growing faster than the country’s resources. Planners have raised concerns on grounds that the population is largely unskilled.

An assessment of the population structure shows that it is largely young, dependent, and unskilled and not competitive both at home and abroad and therefore low productivity. The high and fast growing population has also made it difficult for Uganda to reduce the number of people living in poverty despite impressive economic growth registered in the past decade.

Mr Charles Zirarema, the acting director at the Population Secretariat, said that while poverty has reduced over the years for instance from 34 per cent in 2001 to 24.5 per cent in 2011, the number of people living below poverty line between that period has remained the same—at 8.1 million.

Prof. Augustus Nuwagaba, a development expert from Makerere University explained that the economic growth that the country is experiencing is not translating into better life for its citizens and getting more people out of poverty because the growth is benefiting few individuals. “It hasn’t been distributed evenly. We still see huge gaps between official claims of progress in growth and poverty reduction and people’s everyday living conditions,” he noted.

Coupled with this, he said, that only 32 per cent of Uganda’s population is monetised. “The other 68 per cent don’t hold money in their hands for a whole year. This is very dangerous for a country that aspires for middle income status,” he warned.

Mr Gribble on the other hand explains the link between a slower population growth and poverty reduction. “When a family has fewer children, it is better able to invest in the children’s health and education—both of which contribute to greater income at the household level,” said Mr Gribble.

Experts note that even for countries like Uganda, where the bigger percentage of the population live in rural areas, when family farms are subdivided among children, each child receives a smaller plot of land that affected the amount of cash crops or food to feed the family.

Investment vital
For Uganda to benefit from this explosion, there must be an investment in the population, education, training, health and skills. Sufficient jobs to generate the higher level of per capita income and a well-educated labour force to attract the needed investments necessary for economic growth will also play a crucial role. “Rapid population growth is like a double-edge sword.

If the country has the infrastructure and is able to harness the strengths of a rapidly growing population, then such a population can be beneficial,” explains Mr Gribble. “However, if the country doesn’t have the health and education facilities and personnel it needs, and if there are no jobs for the young population to move into, rapid population growth poses challenges to development,” he adds.

So what would be the ideal population growth rate for Uganda—at its current level of economic growth and development? Experts admit this is difficult to say. But as Mr Gibbble further explains: “If Uganda’s population were already healthy, well-educated and had good jobs, then it might be able to deal more effectively with rapid growth. However, given the challenges Uganda faces to development, slowing population may be able to help it advance economically.”