Thomas Sankara’s Lost Legacy

by Richard Cincotta

Woodrow Wilson Center Global Fellow/Senior Fellow, The Population Institute

Thirty-four years ago, Burkina Faso’s president, Thomas Sankara, was murdered. Only now are his alleged assassins on trial. Had he survived, the arid, landlocked country of more than 20 million people might well have taken a far different path to development.

The late-Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso (1984-87)

More media attention has focused on former-president Thomas Sankara’s modest salary and lifestyle, than the most audacious and forward-thinking of his reforms: his pro-women policies and programs. Sankara encouraged girls to finish secondary school and earn income, introduced voluntary family planning programs, and required schools to allow pregnant students to return to finish their education. Long before African leaders paid attention to women’s rights, Sankara’s government outlawed female genital cutting, forced marriages, and polygamy. Sankara also appointed women to cabinet positions and other top government posts, and mandated women’s participation in village governing committees. His was the first among African governments to recruit women into the military.

To read the complete essay on Sankara, go to The New Security Beat site.

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What Future for the Western Sahel?

The Region’s Demography and Its Implications by 2045 (Atlantic Council, 2021)

By Richard Cincotta and Stephen Smith

The 6 states of the Western Sahel, northern Nigeria, and the Sahel climatic zone.

The Western Sahel—a region stretching from Senegal and Mauritania to Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad, and including the twelve sharia law states of northern Nigeria—is in a demographic impasse. Rather than yielding an economic dividend, the conditions spawned by the region’s persistently youthful, rapidly growing, high-fertility populations overwhelm the capabilities of state-run services, generate extensive urban slum conditions, slow if not stall economic and social progress, and aggravate ethnic tensions. Decades of exposure to these mutually reinforcing conditions have undermined the legitimacy of central governments and rendered the region’s states vulnerable to the spread of Islamic populism and regime instability. For more …..

To view the report online: go here.  

To view the Executive Summary, go to the Atlantic Council website

To download the report in .pdf format: download here

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Emulating Botswana’s Fertility Transition

Emulating Botswana’s Approach to Reproductive Health Services Could Speed Development in the Sahel

This new web essay (on the NSB website <click here>) reviews research that uses the relatively rapid changes in Botswana’s age-specific fertility rates to produce a “Botswana historic fertility variant” and applies this projection to the populations of countries in the Western Sahel—a contiguous cluster of states with populations that remain at the early stages of the fertility transition. For these high-fertility countries, projections of this variant (up to the year 2050) fall roughly around the TFR trajectory the UN low fertility variant.


Figure.  Declines in Fertility Across Women’s Age Groups in Botswana, Niger, and Mali from 1980–85 to 2015–20. In Botswana, girls’ education and a quality family planning program helped adolescents postpone childbearing and helped older women avoid the risks associated with unwanted middle-age pregnancy (Data source: UN Pop. Div., 2019 Rev.)

This exercise provides a glimpse of what could possibly be achieved in some states in tropical Africa by emulating Botswana’s efforts to ramp up access to family planning, to decrease the frequency of teen pregnancies, and to increase girls’ educational attainment. However, the essay notes how different the Sahelian countries are from Botswana—a well-governed, resource-endowed southern African country with a relatively small, urbanized (>65%) population (2.3 million)—and thus the formidable challenges those differences present in attempting to replicate the pace of Botswana’s fertility transition.



Figure.  UN Population Division’s High, Medium, and Low Fertility Variants for Niger and Mali vs. Botswana Historical Fertility Variant (BHFV). In both cases, applying Botswana’s age-specific pattern of fertility declines would produce a projection roughly similar to the current UN low fertility variant. (Data Source: UN Pop. Div., 2019 Rev. & author’s research)

For the full essay, go to the NSB website <click here>

Or, download the essay <click here to download>

Which Demographic “End of History”?

Dec. 9, 2019
[Among the top 5 New Security Beat Posts, December 2019]

Demography’s theoretical end-state is a set of hard-to-escape conditions typified by low and often sub-replacement levels of fertility, large proportions of retirees, and an aging workforce—an endpoint that the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends reports refer to as post-maturity. The shift toward post-maturity is so unrelenting in parts of Europe and East Asia that some analysts imagine humanity plunging globally into post-maturity. However, this scenario, which I call “Post-mature World,” is looking much less likely than its non-endpoint alternative (see Figure 1), a chronically demographically “Polarized World.”

To visit the complete essay on the New Security Beat website, click HERE. Or, download the essay HERE.


MapsThe age-structural phases of countries in Europe and in parts of Africa and Asia, 2015 & 2035 (projected). Maps represent the UN Population Division’s current estimates of median ages for 2015 and projections for 2035 (UN medium fertility variant). By 2035, most of Europe’s states will likely have advanced into post-maturity, whereas in the Sahel and tropics of Africa, countries will probably still be in the youthful phase of the age-structural transition. 

Figure 1.  Post-mature World and its alternative Polarized World, showing the Global Trends four-phase schema representing the path of the age-structural transition. Black arrows indicate the transition’s path and identify the two hard-to-escape demographic conditions, the youthful and post-mature phases. In a Post-mature World, countries age and their populations eventually decline. In a Polarized World, human population continues to grow in the youthful regions, stimulating increased migration to nearby states and to more mature regions.

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Defining the Demographic Window

Introduced by UN demographers during the Population Division’s release of a series of long-range projections (UNPD 2004, 2, 70-73), the original intent of the demographic window was to call attention to the segment of the age-structural transition that tends to measurably favor economic development. In its original formulation, UN demographers assumed that this window occurs when both children (0 to 14 years) and seniors (65 and older)—age groups that are composed principally of dependents—are at a low ebb. However, unlike other measures of dependency, in the UNPD’s formulation, children and seniors are differentially weighted; each senior is assumed to represent twice the per-child burden on economic development. According to this method, the demographic window is deemed open when children comprise less than 30 percent of the total population, and simultaneously, seniors comprise less than 15 percent of the total population.

Figure. Total fertility rate versus median age for all independent states (except the GCC states) in 2015, showing states in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), and Europe. To enter the demographic window (the intermediate phase of the age-structural transition) appears to require a TFR near 2.8 children or below. Two exceptions, Israel (IS) and Algeria (AL) have experienced a rise in TFR. The position of some other states are shown: Niger (NG), South Sudan (SO), Timor Leste (TL), Nigeria (NI), the USA (US), China (CH), South Korea (RK), and Japan (JP).

Despite its seemingly arbitrary rules and speculative boundaries, in practice the UNPD’s demographic window has done well identifying conditions during which states achieve the World Bank’s upper-middle income classification, a milestone in development. For example, among the World Bank’s 2018 list of upper-middle income states, all are either in the UNPD’s demographic window or have passed through it (World Bank, 2019). The remainder are either significant oil and/or mineral exporters or have a population under 5.0 million—a group that includes numerous island states with exceptional per-capita tourist revenue and/or remittances.

Coupled with the UNPD’s demographic estimates and projections, the analytical usefulness of this simply defined window is obvious. To make the concept compatible with the conventions of age-structural modeling, Cincotta (2017) employed the UNPD (2004) metric to estimate the median ages of its assumed boundaries. From a sample comprising the 40 states that had entered that window since 1950 (excluding states with greater than 15 percent of GDP in oil or mineral rents). On this basis, the UNPD’s demographic window generally began at a median age between 26 and 27 years. Among most of the sample, the window ended at a median age between 39 and 42 years.

Using the lower median age boundary, Cincotta (2017) noted that states are generally unable to enter the demographic window without declining below a total fertility rate (TFR) of 2.8 children per woman (Fig. 4). Nonetheless, among states that have sustained rapid rates of fertility decline, populations have often declined well below a TFR of 2.8 before achieving a median age of 26 years. As these states aged—as relatively large cohorts of children and adolescents were replaced by smaller cohorts—they usually crossed the window’s nominal threshold within a decade.

This analysis noted that for most states, their trip through this demographic window of favorable age structures is likely to be a onetime opportunity—but with exceptions. The length of chronological time spent in the demographic window has occasionally been extended, at least temporarily, by: (a.) a baby boom, such as the post-war WWII rebound in fertility in the United States and in some Western European states; (b.) an influx of youthful immigrants; (c.) sustained rapid population growth among an ethnic minority with significantly higher-than-replacement fertility; or (d.) fertility settling near replacement levels, with very low child mortality.

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