Is a Growing Population an Asset or Challenge?

Jul 24th, 2017 | By | Category: Youth Rights

By Suzanne York.

In Uganda, home to incredible biodiversity and some of the world’s friendliest people, the idea of a growing population is viewed by some as a positive, when actually the 1.2 million people added to the population every year is putting enormous pressure on people, communities and the environment.

The facts speak for themselves and paint a challenging picture: Uganda’s current population of 37 million is projected to reach 100 million by 2050, (in a country the size of the state of Oregon) and it is the world’s youngest country, with over 75% of the population under the age of 30.

‘population is a big asset’

Yet the headline earlier this month in a local Kampala newspaper – “Huge population is a big asset,” reflected the government’s oft-repeated belief that population growth equals economic growth.

new vision

President Yoweri Museveni said he was not “worried about the growing population, but the growth of the economy.” But if this growing population doesn’t have adequate education, healthcare and sustainable jobs, it will not be much of an asset.

Henk Bakker, the Netherlands ambassador to Uganda, noted as much, saying “If the current growing population is not checked, Uganda will be suffering with a big number of its population uneducated and majority not accessing health services.”

In the past, President Museveni has called family planning “good for the health of the mother, good for the health of children, for the welfare of the family, for the welfare of the country.”

The Ugandan government has also supported a new injectable called Sayana Press. However, due to the Trump administration’s budget cuts to international family planning, funding will end shortly and the Ugandan government and Ugandan women will have to look elsewhere for support.

This bad news, especially for young people, who need good information on and access to contraceptives. One in four girls between the ages of 15 to 19 in Uganda has given birth or is carrying her first child, according to the country’s 2016 Demographic and Health Survey.  Reducing teen pregnancies will result in greater education and economic opportunities for youth.

Encouragingly, President Museveni has expressed concerned about the high rates of teenage pregnancy, noting that “young girls should not produce babies before finishing school.” Sex education for both young women and men would go a long way towards changing this narrative but currently, teaching sex ed is banned.

Ugandan kids in Buhoma, near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park [photo credit: Suzanne York]

Ugandan kids in Buhoma, near Bwindi Impenetrable National Park [photo credit: Suzanne York]

Demographic Dividend Requires Strategic Investments Today

In addition to empowering young people with reproductive rights, they also need viable jobs. Meeting youth employment needs is a problem across most of Africa. About 10 million young African youth enter the job market every year. Specifically in Uganda, according to the World Bank, about 500,000 people are expected to enter the labor market every year; currently, 64% of the unemployed are aged 24 and under.

If African countries are to reap the demographic dividend (defined as a potential economic boom that occurs when falling fertility rates coincide with a growing working-age population), as has happened in Thailand, meeting the sexual and reproductive health needs and rights of youth is paramount.

The following is what experts at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Population Reference Bureau state has to happen for the demographic dividend to be successful:

As fertility rates decrease, a country’s working-age population grows larger relative to the young dependent population. With more people in the labor force and fewer children to support, a country has a window of opportunity for rapid economic growth if the right social and economic investments and policies are made in health, education, governance, and the economy.

Conversely, research shows that resource requirements to support a large population of children and youth can depress the pace of economic growth and prevent needed investments in human capital.

Supporting Rights First

President Museveni is correct – the Ugandan population is an asset. But it may not be if it continues to grow without adequately addressing the rights and needs of all its citizens (and the resulting pressures put on the environment upon which humanity depends). Providing quality education, employment and reproductive health services is a start.

Check out Reproductive Health Uganda for how one organization is helping meet the urgent needs of youth and all Ugandans.


Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth and was currently in Uganda researching organizations implementing the Population, Health and Environment (PHE) approach.

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