Reaping the Whirlwind: Making the Demographic Dividend in Africa

Much of the African continent today is undergoing massive population growth. This provokes neo-Malthusian anxieties, but it also raises hopes for a “demographic dividend” that will bootstrap countries into middle-income status. My current research focuses on Mauritius, one of the African Union members frequently held up as having already achieved this dividend. In the 1960s, newly independent Mauritius was perceived as a “case study in Malthusian economics”, as one Nobel-prize-winning economist called it. With a young and rapidly growing population, and with little in the way of natural resources or economic prospects, Mauritius was widely expected to collapse under the weight of an excessive number of people on a small island. Instead, however, the country undertook a deliberate project of reshaping its population and is now celebrated as an African “miracle” – stable, wealthy, and democratic. Working ethnographically and historically, I am exploring how Mauritius achieved the kind of “miraculous” development to which much of the African continent now aspires. The focus is on multiple generations of families whose members lived through these changes, and it will include the various experts who engineered them – family-planning and public health officials, economists and demographers, bankers, policymakers, and transnational actors.

This research approaches Mauritius as a historical case of the making of the demographic dividend. In a way that is comparable to the early days of postcolonial Mauritius, many countries on the African continent have booming fertility rates and exceedingly young populations. The absolute number of people on the continent is expected to double by 2050. According to the UN, by 2100 one in every three people in the world will live in Africa. Already many African countries’ public institutions are creaking under the weight of these changes. Given these developments, the notion of the demographic dividend has become central to governance in many African states, and it is heavily promoted by transnational actors such as the World Bank and the IMF. It refers to the benefits that come from shaping a burgeoning population into one in which the majority is skilled, educated, and working-age – a process that is supposed to lift countries into middle-income status, leading to wealthier economies and healthier families.

How do disciplines such as demography and economics help to construct the objects they purport to describe – these things we call “population” and “economy”? By tracing the ways in which Mauritius’s population and economy were reconstructed together, the project foregrounds the political nature of such processes. That is to say, it challenges pervasive habits of speaking about them as natural entities governed by organic laws and possessed of their own health. By grounding the story in the perspectives of both the families who lived through dramatic transformations and the experts who planned them, the project will illuminate what it meant and felt like to participate in the making of a polity today called a demographic, economic, and political “miracle”.

My research in Mauritius thus attends to various ways in which “population” is enacted as both a problem and a possibility. It explores the processes that underwrite the constitution of entities such as population, economy, and people, which we otherwise tend to speak of as self-evident. It will help us to understand what exactly a “population” is and how it is related to something called “an economy” or “the economy”. If the science of population is called demography, what exactly does “demos” mean here? And how is that related to the other obviously demos-centred project – democracy? In this case study, I draw on scholarship about biopolitics and the performativity of markets and numbers, but I move such conversations outside their focus on European initiatives and the North Atlantic. Moreover, I flesh out these conversations by grounding fieldwork in classical anthropological concerns such as kinship, personhood, and value. Ultimately, I anticipate that the case of Mauritius will provide a historical vantage point for thinking critically about efforts to engineer the demographic dividend in the face of massive population growth throughout the African Union. Alongside my research on Mauritius, then, I intend to reflect comparatively on the politics of population throughout contemporary Africa, drawing particularly on my past research in Uganda and the East/Central Africa region.

Go to Editor View