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Africa's Next Billion Can World Leaders Help Us Reap the Benefits of the Demographic Dividend?

17/01/2014 09:56 GMT | Updated 18/03/2014 09:59 GMT

There is always lots of food for thought during big events like the World Economic Forum in Davos - and this year is no different. For five days, in the highest city in Europe, the world's great and the good will turn their attention to subjects as diverse as monetary policy, Syria, the global energy agenda and oddly a conversation on mindfulness with Goldie Hawn. But speaking as a midwife and one of the 1.1 billion people living in Africa, to my mind, there is one recurring topic that perfectly fits this year's theme: "Reshaping of the World"- and that is the future of our people.

On Wednesday, world and business leaders will focus their minds on 'Africa's Next Billion' and what actions are needed now to ensure that growth will last and be beneficial to everyone. In many ways, the next billion is a terrifying prospect, bringing with it images of overcrowding, civil unrest and a strain on already limited resources. Yet over the last few decades, many countries in Asia have used their vast populations to good effect and succeeded in turning their economies around from some of the poorest to the fastest growing in the world. However, having a large population in itself is not enough, so what is the window of opportunity that they have been able to capitalise on?

The answer is the "demographic dividend". When a country transitions from high to low rates of fertility and child and infant mortality, it creates a working age population that is larger than the dependent generations both preceding and following it. With more workers and fewer people to support, the country has an opportunity to accelerated economic growth known as the demographic dividend. The key word here, however, is opportunity - economic growth is not a given. In order to realise a lasting demographic dividend, countries must invest in child survival interventions, improve girls' education and create economic opportunity especially among youth and women, but the starting point always has to be increasing access to voluntary family planning.

In Ghana - indeed across Africa - better access to modern healthcare means more babies are surviving, fewer adults are dying from preventable diseases and the birth rate is slowly falling, leading to excited talk that we are poised to follow in the footsteps of Asia, where on some estimates, a quarter of the economic growth over the past 50 years has come from its favourable demographic pattern. But Africa's fertility rate is still fairly high and, despite holding the dubious honour of being the only continent that will double its population by 2050, we are not alone.

Far too many people are still deprived of the means of exercising the right to freely decide how many children to have and when to have them. An estimated 222 million women in the developing world who want to delay or avoid pregnancy are without access to family planning, with those in low income countries disproportionately affected. In 2012, about 53% of women (58 million) in Sub-Saharan Africa who wanted to avoid a pregnancy were not using family planning or were relying on a traditional method , accounting for 91% of unintended pregnancies. While in my home country of Ghana, where I work for Marie Stopes International, supporting women with their family planning needs and choices, contraceptive prevalence for modern methods is just 17% .

Yet access to voluntary family planning and the falling fertility and personal empowerment it brings matter. It means women can go to work and earn their own money, leading to greater female autonomy, it means parents can more easily afford to look after and educate their children, which in turn leads to higher wages and living standards, and in the future it will mean a higher quality workforce that is equipped to compete in the global economy.

And so I say to world leaders, Africa is at a pivotal moment in its history, but whether we can harness the potential being presented to us and, in the process, improve the lives of millions of women and their families will depend on the choices made today. The hopes, ambitions and future of the 1.1 billion living in Africa now and the 1.1 billion children who will be born to them, hinge on the leaders in Davos and the leaders in our countries making the right decisions and investments in family planning now. Africa, let's do this together.