This article was originally published on The World Bank’s Africa Can End Poverty blog.

Will Africa benefit economically from its current fertility transition?  Between 1990 and 2010, Africa’s birth rate fell from 6.2 to 4.9 births per woman. Such a decline was expected to enhance the region’s schooling and development prospects, by creating a historical opportunity for a ‘demographic dividend.’ In theory, dividends result from a temporary reduction in age-dependency ratios as birth rates fall. In practice however, dividends and the conditions under which they emerge are hard to pin down.

The views among scholars are split. For the optimist, the pro-arguments are compelling.  Declines in fertility can enhance schooling via several mechanisms that include reductions in (1) the incidence of pregnancy-related dropouts, (2) schooling cohort sizes, (3) age-dependency, and (4) sibling-ship size (Figure 1). The optimist might be further heartened by results from studies that show inverse correlations between fertility and schooling, or by the historical experience of Asia and Latin America that reportedly accrued a schooling dividend during their transitions.

Figure 1. Theoretical pathways of influence for the dividend

For the more circumspect, theory and mere correlation are not enough. Causal evidence is needed, but this evidence has been in short supply, at least on a scale and at the level of aggregation needed to make confident and general claims about this region. In the absence of ideal data, decomposition methods offer a practical approach to study the schooling dividend. This approach focuses on the mechanical gains in public education spending per child associated with change in a country’s age structure. It is practical in a double sense: first, it uses national statistics that are widely available. Second, its calculations are transparent because they build on the simple mathematical relationship linking public education spending per child (r), national income (G), the share of income allocated to education (k), and the school age population (n).

This approach was used in a recent World Bank study to estimate the gains in public education spending per pupil (r) registered between 1990 and 2010 in several African countries. Its main findings are as follows:

  • On the positive side, the study found evidence of an emerging schooling dividend in the region. For SSA as a whole, average spending (r) increased from $96 to $198. The gains were largest for countries at the vanguard of Africa’s fertility transitions. Thus Southern Africa (excluding Zimbabwe) registered an average jump of 75% in r values, with 26% to 70% of these gains stemming from reductions in age-dependency. Since fertility transitions might additionally affect schooling through the other channels in Figure 1, the total schooling dividend is expected to be larger than estimated in this study.
  • On the more cautious side, the study made four observations:
    • First, although age dependency was an important factor, economic growth and budget commitments mattered as well. Countries making the largest gains in r did so with a balanced mix of reduced age dependency, economic growth and public commitment to education.
    • Second, the gains in r were varied (Figure 2). Indeed, they were selective in ways that reinforce schooling inequality between countries. Similar inequalities might also be emerging within countries, in light of large and growing inequalities in birth rates within countries, and depending on trends in the cost of secondary schooling.
    • Third, the decomposition approach focuses on gains in per capita schooling inputs rather than actual schooling outcomes. Improving inputs alone does not guarantee better outcomes, and the extent to which inputs translate into improved outcomes varies across countries.
    • Fourth and finally, future dividends are not automatic, especially in countries where transitions have stalled in recent years. Future dividends will require swift, steady, and broad-based declines in fertility, as well as continued incentives to invest in schooling.

Overall, countries at the vanguard of Africa’s fertility transition already show signs of an emerging schooling dividend but this dividend is neither universally shared nor guaranteed in the future. Harnessing a sizable and widely shared dividend in the future will require deliberate population and education policies to encourage enable families to trade off larger families for deeper investments in schooling.

Figure 2. Decomposition results for the gains in public spending per pupil, Sub-Saharan Africa (1990-2010)

Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Parfait Eloundou-Enyegue is Professor of Development Sociology, Cornell University. His current work focuses on the demography and sociology of inequality. In the last four years, he has collaborated with a network of researchers in Francophone Africa to study prospects for a demographic dividend in the region.

Image: Children attend class at Maikohi secondary school inside a camp for internally displaced persons. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde.