According to the United Nations, the current population size of 100 million in the Sahel region is expected to increase six-fold to 600 million by 2100. The high levels of population growth will increase the pressure on already limited public resources, the environment and the fragile economies of the region. Poverty and food security is expected to worsen with increasing population size putting countries in the region at risk of social and political instability.
The status of women in the region has remained poor, with very little progress evident on gender indicators over the years. The Sahel region is characterized by practices such as early marriage and childbearing, low levels of education among women, high levels of desired fertility, and weak health services which result in poor access to family planning and reproductive health care. This has had a deleterious impact on women’s health. Some of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world are observed in the Sahel region, for example in countries including Niger (590 per 100,000), Nigeria (630), Chad (1,100) and Sudan (730). Harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation, child marriage and polygamy are prevalent and legal restrictions on abortion increase women’s risk of maternal death.
Any international or national commitments to spur economic growth in the Sahel region will remain unfulfilled unless reducing population growth and improving women’s status is made an urgent priority. The region is at a critical juncture where corrective policy measures can change the course of history. With appropriate investments in human capital, the latent potential of the population can be reaped in the coming decades.
The demographic dividend refers to the window of opportunity that opens up when the largest proportion of the population is in the working age group and the proportion of dependents (children and elderly) is smaller. The phenomenon reduces the dependency ratio and ushers in economic growth as witnessed in other regions such as East Asia. The demographic dividend can become a reality in the Sahel region if appropriate policies are put in place and necessary actions taken. The key factors that usher the demographic dividend are fertility reduction, women’s empowerment through health and education and investments in human capital to equip the workforce with necessary skills and opportunities for accelerating economic growth.
The upcoming African Development Bank Group’s “Human Capital Development Strategy” places emphasis on improving skills for competitiveness and jobs. By strengthening skills of the emerging workforce and improving employability of graduates, these investments are expected to fuel the growing economies of the region.
Further, the efficiency and inclusiveness of service delivery will be improved through programs such as value for money, accountability and voice in service delivery. These are expected to deliver better and more equitable services and contribute to stable and inclusive societies.
The strategy also emphasizes building financial and social systems to ensure inclusion and social cohesion. Strategies for women’s empowerment will be integrated into human capital development programs to increase women’s participation in the workforce and improve their productive contribution to the economies of the region.