Ethiopia’s Growing Population

Ethiopia’s Growing Population: Burden or Benefit?

Ethiopia’s population has grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades. According to United Nations (UN) estimates, the country’s population was just over 18 million in 1950 – today, that figure is around 90 million. But is this rapid growth good for Ethiopia’s overall economic development? Experts seem to be divided. In honour of the UN’s World Population Day on July 11th, EBR’s Bantayehu Demlie delved deeper into the issue to learn more about it.

The drought Ethiopia is currently experiencing has resulted in doubts regarding the viability of the country maintaining its widely applauded decade-long, double-digit economic growth. Official sources indicate that more than 10 million people are in need of emergency food aid. This means more than 10Pct of the nation’s population is not yet food secure.
Although the lagging growth observed in the agricultural sector is seen as the main reason for the persistence of food insecurity in Ethiopia, scholars and those close to the issue point their fingers at the nation’s unchecked population growth.
According to the United Nation’s (UN) World Population Prospects, Ethiopia’s population was 18.4 million in 1950. This figure took 30 years to double, reaching 35.4 million in 1980. However, after 1980 it only took 27 years for the population to double and in 2007 it stood at 70 million.
The UN also estimated Ethiopia’s population was 90.9 million in 2015, making it the world’s 13th most populous nation and the 2nd most populous in Africa. Their data suggests that Ethiopia’s population, currently one of the fastest growing globally, will reach 210 million by 2060.
Despite this reality, stakeholders say the challenges of this rapid population growth have been underestimated in Ethiopia. “Discussions on controlling population growth are intentionally neglected in the public sphere because the underlying philosophy of the national population policy is that [people are] a resource,” Abebaw Eshete, Population Affairs Study and Information Team Leader at the National Planning Commission, told EBR. He’s alluding to a comment made by the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi: “A newborn does not come only with a hungry stomach. He comes with two hands to work as well.”
Worldwide, there are two major views on the link between population and economic growth. These include optimists such as the late Prime Minister, who view population growth as a development catalyst.
Professor Richard Tiffin, Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading, is a proponent of this argument. In fact, he sees the relationship between population growth and economic development to be fundamental in understanding less developed countries. Tiffin argues that in developing countries, where the relationship between population growth and economic performance can be described as positive, demographic trends stimulate economic development and promote a rise in living standards. This is because the population growth encourages competition in business activities and as the country’s population grows, potential markets increase as well. The spreading out of the market, in turn, encourages entrepreneurs to establish new businesses.
Julian Simon, who served as a long-time economics and business professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, stressed the positive side of population growth and distinguished human beings as the vital and most essential element for economic development. As Simon put it in his book The Ultimate Resource, published in 1996: “the ultimate resource is people – skilled, spirited, and hopeful people who will exert their wills and imaginations for their own benefit, and inevitably they will benefit not only themselves but the rest of us as well.”
On the other hand, there are pessimists, who argue that high population growth is a burden for an economy. They describe the relationship between the population growth and the economic performance of a country as negative, in which the increase of population is likely to become an impediment to the nation’s economic development. This is because the rapid expansion of population increases the dependency burden, which describes the number of people who are considered to be economically unproductive, such as children and the elderly.
The pessimist’s outlook on population growth has been prevailing over the optimist’s argument since Thomas Malthus warned about the danger of “over-population” in his essay entitled “Pessimism About the Economic Impacts of Population” more than two centuries ago.
Demographers like Assefa Hailemariam, Associate Professor at the Centre for Population Studies of Addis Ababa University’s College of Development Studies, argue that in reality, the validity of the optimist view that population is a resource depends on whether people can generate wealth. “This happens when they are capable of working, when they can generate income, when they are educated, when they are healthy and when there are enough employment opportunities,” Assefa told EBR.
Putting this into context, Assefa argues that in Ethiopia it is difficult to say that a large population is a resource. “This is because the bulk of the population is not literate, the majority of the youth are engaged in informal income generating activities, and much of that income is at a subsistence level,” he says. “For me, a population under poverty is not a resource.”
To support his argument, Assefa refers to the experience of other populous countries: China and India. In the 1940s, China was under deep poverty. There was famine in the 1960s. It adopted the one-child policy in the 1970s. “Though China’s policy was condemned by the international community as being too coercive, and despite its side effects, China is booming economically. Imagine what would have happened without the policy,” he illustrates.
India, the world’s second most populous nation, which the UN predicts will take over China to become the world’s most populous in 2022, introduced one of the earliest state-sponsored family planning schemes as far back as the 1950s. Even though the impact for India is not well known, it shows that curbing population growth has been an important issue for these populous and prospering nations.
Many agree that in Ethiopia, the challenges of rapid population growth are numerous, especially with an official growth rate of 2.4Pct, which means Ethiopia adds 2 million people every year. This is despite the fact that the World Bank says that an annual growth rate of 2Pct is a level at which it is difficult for a country’s institutions and technologies to keep up with expanding population pressures on all sectors. “No matter how much surplus the economy produces, Ethiopia’s ever-increasing population will consume it,” says Abebaw.
Additionally, demographers argue that since the base population is already large, although the growth margin seems small, the increase is significant. As a result, there are critical implications on food security, especially in times of droughts and disasters.
This is why the National Planning Commission and the United Nations Population Fund organised a workshop in Addis Ababa last month where decision-makers and experts discussed the nexus between Ethiopia’s population and economic growth.

Ethiopia’s Population Policy
This is not the first time a drought has given Ethiopian policy-makers the task of thinking about the effects of the demographic burden on food security. During the Dergue regime, drought was one of the reasons why the government came up with a draft population policy, a precursor to the one that is currently in force.
“The 1984 census revealing an additional 10 million people more than anticipated for an early 1980s ten-year strategic plan, coupled with other factors, such as the drought, made the pro-natal Dergue government prepare a draft population policy,” says Assefa. “Yet the Dergue’s proposed population policy remained a draft.
Then the transitional government came up with a new national population policy, which was adopted in April 1993. Compared to the preceding draft, experts say the 1993 policy is more comprehensive. “It is not just about population. It also covers the development, environment, health, gender and even the human rights aspects of population [growth and control],” Assefa told EBR.
Yet, the policy suggests that demography is just one factor for the nation’s underdevelopment. “[T]he force of demography is [not] the only cause of underdevelopment and solving the demographic problem in itself [does not solve] other developmental problems,” the document notes.
Upon perusing the policy, one can easily learn the context in which it came into effect. For instance, it recognises that in Ethiopia, a lack of appropriate technology led to the use of environmentally harmful and economically counter-productive methods of exploiting land and other resources as a consequence of which the country faces erratic climatic conditions and declining soil quality. Forest coverage dwindled from approximately 40Pct at the turn of the century to roughly 3Pct at the time of adoption of the policy. The document also notes the implications of this degradation on the fragility of the nation’s food security, especially in the face of the increasing demand for food among its population.
In connection with this, the policy expects the annual food demand to increase between 2.3Pct and 5Pct yearly from 2015 to 2025, under the assumption of low and high variant population growth rates. To respond to this growing food demand and a host of other challenges, the 1993 policy set specific targets to be met by the year 2015 (‘Target 2015’) and incorporates institutional mechanisms of implementing these targets.
It has two central objectives. These are reducing total fertility from 7.7 to 4 per household and increasing the contraceptive prevalence rate of women between the ages of 15 and 49 from 4Pct to 44Pct by 2015. There are also other targets to be achieved by the same deadline, including reducing infant, child and maternal mortality rates as well as increasing the number of women and girls receiving formal education.
The mechanisms of implementing the policy demonstrate the significance given to the issue in 1993. The policy envisages the establishment of a National Population Council to be directly chaired by the Prime Minister or a senior official designated by the PM, and an Office of Population within the Office of the Prime Minister.
The policy considers this the most effective and strategic structural method of implementation, especially compared to establishing one ministry solely responsible for population affairs, which the policy foresees difficulties in ensuring inter-agency concerted action. The multidisciplinary nature of population programmes adds to the difficulty.

Achieving ‘Target 2015’
Data from the last three consecutive Demographic and Health Surveys conducted by the Central Statistical Agency (CSA) indicate that Ethiopia has already achieved many of the targets set for 2015. For example, the total fertility rate declined from 7.2 in 1990 to 4.1 per household in 2014. During the same period, the contraception prevalence rate of women increased by 2.5 annually, more than sixfold, and reached 44Pct nationally.
There are also other praiseworthy achievements in the areas of cutting infant, child and maternal mortality – as a result of which Ethiopia achieved the Millennium Development Goals in this respect. Narrowing the gender gap by expanding access to education is also another success, with significant implications on fertility.
Besides these measurable results, experts mention that the policy has had broader implications. For example, it led to the mushrooming of different organisations working on reproductive health and family planning. Previously, the only non-governmental organisation working on this issue was the Family Guidance Association of Ethiopia. “Even government health institutions such as hospitals began providing effective family planning services after the adoption of the policy,” Assefa observes.

Beyond Achieving the Targets
While all these developments are commendable, experts argue that Ethiopia could have achieved more had there not been a number of gaps in implementing the policy.
The first gap is the absence of an effective implementing institution. The National Population Council was never established. The Office of Population, which was supposed to serve as the Council’s secretariat, was also never established as an autonomous institution. Rather, it was organised as the Population Affairs Directorate under the former Ministry of Finance and Economic Development, until it recently moved to the National Planning Commission, where it operates as the Population and Development Directorate.
Abebaw admits that the institutions envisaged in the policy have not effectively been organised and are not working efficiently at this time. “The decision to organise the body under the National Planning Commission is with the expectation that it will help to mainstream population issues in the planning activities of relevant stakeholders,” Abebaw hopes.
The second gap Assefa identifies is the absence a population programme accompanying the policy. “The policy is broad and thus generally difficult to implement as it is. A programme will set specifics in relation to targets to be achieved, a time frame, and budget,” he explains.
Thirdly, there is a very weak monitoring and evaluation mechanism. Such a mechanism would have helped to periodically track successes in the implementation of the policy.
The other constraint is the absence of a legal basis. “The policy has never been backed by law nor the institutions envisaged by the policy established by law,” says Assefa.
All these factors, coupled with financial and capacity constraints, according to scholars, have delayed the implementation, which calls for policy revision and amendment, even if it does not mean that the policy led to laudable accomplishments.

The Need for Policy Revision
Government officials agree with the need for amending the population policy. “We have prepared a concept note to evaluate the policy and see if it needs revision,” Abebaw told EBR. Revising the population policy and equipping it with effective implementing institutions is timely for at least two compelling reasons.
Firstly, the deadline year for many of the targets set in the policy – 2015 – just passed. It is time to reflect on its successes and failures and revise based on the findings. Secondly, revision is necessary to respond to new developments that took place after the adoption of the policy. In this regard, at least two changes require a serious revisiting of the existing policy.
One of these is the emergence of what is known as the “demographic dividend,” which was unknown at the time Ethiopia adopted its population policy in 1993. According to a report published by the Ethiopian Economics Association (EEA) in 2015 entitled “The Demographic Dividend: an Opportunity for Ethiopia’s Transformation,” a demographic dividend refers to the accelerated economic growth that can begin with changes in the age structure of a country’s population as it shifts from high to low birth and death rates during a demographic transition.
Also known as the “demographic bonus” or “youth bulge,” the term, in short, means the potential for accelerated economic growth associated with an increase in the economically active share of the population.
The notion emerged in the late 1990s after examining what is commonly known as the Asian Miracle. In this phenomenon, four East Asian countries – namely China (Hong Kong), Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan – experienced rapid rates of economic growth. In addition to sound economic policies, demographic factors, particularly changes in age composition and dependency ratios resulting from fast declines in fertility rates, played a crucial role in engendering the ‘Miracle’, according to the report by the EEA.
The report reveals that Ethiopia may be at the cusp of a once-in-a-life-time window of opportunity as the nation’s working-age population grows relative to the number of young dependants – resulting from the successes in the areas of reducing fertility and mortality. According to CSA projections, the proportion of children aged 0-14 years will decline from 43.8Pct in 2007 to 27-34Pct of the population in 2050, which means there will be a lower dependency ratio in 35 years.
Unfortunately, the study underlines that the fruits of a demographic dividend do not come by themselves. It suggests that Ethiopia needs to be ready by setting the right policies and investing in the education and health of the youth. If so, the gross domestic product per capita could leap from USD498 in 2010 to USD10,189 by 2050.
Concurring with the findings of the report, Assefa cautions that unless Ethiopia is able to avail quality employment opportunities for the youth, political and social crises are likely to occur, thwarting any chance of taking advantage of the dividend.
The CSA’s population projections reveal that within the next 30 years the nation’s working-age population will grow from about 39 million in 2007 to around 90 million in 2037. Although the growth rate of the working-age group is much higher than that of the total population, unless readily utilised, it is clear that such growth may lead to several social and economic problems.
Many studies, including the one conducted by EEA, emphasise that minimising the employment gap is a decisive factor as to whether Ethiopia will benefit from the demographic dividend. The EEA study projects an employment gap of up to 33 million people by 2050 and recommends investments in the economy, education, and family planning to reduce the gap.
The other development that is a natural consequence of a growing youth population is the increase in the old-age population. According to the CSA’s projection, Ethiopia’s elderly population (aged 65 years and above) was only 2.5 million (3.3Pct of the total population) in 2007. This figure will increase 2.5 times in 30 years and become 6.4 million in 2037. Although the elderly will still be small relative to the total population scholars say this also requires careful planning to meet their needs.
“The scattered provision of services to the elderly currently given by charities may not effectively address the challenges that will keep growing,” argues Assefa. “Ethiopia needs to be ready for this so as not to face what Europe and Japan faced with regard to their old-age populations.”
Since the publication of Malthus’ essay on the principle of population growth in 1798, development economists and policy makers have devoted much effort to address the problem of population growth although there is divergence of opinion regarding the likely impact of population growth on a given economy.
Despite differing opinions, the experiences of other developing nations reveal that high and significant population growth is a real problem because it adversely affects economic growth, since it forces the government to direct resources towards the exploding population instead of productive channels. Therefore, some experts suggest population growth must be addressed seriously and squarely in order take Ethiopia out from underneath the poverty trap. EBR


4th Year • June 16 2016 – July 15 2016 • No. 40

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Ethiopian Business Review | EBR is a first-class and high-quality monthly business magazine offering enlightenment to readers and a platform for partners.



2Q69+2MM, Jomo Kenyatta St, Addis Ababa

Tsehay Messay Building

Contact Us

+251 961 41 41 41