Uganda: So far from Europe

I’m in Uganda this week, and thinking about demographics.

Uganda’s demographics are about as different from Europe’s as possible. Fertility is very high. Birthrates are very, very high. The median age is about 15 years old; most Ugandans are still minors. The “age pyramid” looks more like a Buddhist stupa. Uganda’s current population is just over 30 million, but by 2050 it’s expected to be more like 120 million. At that point Uganda — with a land area a bit smaller than Romania — is expected to have more people than Russia.

There are a couple of ways to look at this.

Optimist: over the last ten years, Uganda’s GDP growth has actually outpaced population growth by a percentage point or two. If this continues, 2050 Uganda will be a lower-middle income country, albeit a somewhat crowded one.

How crowded? Well, right now Uganda’s population density is about 120 people per square kilometer, roughly equal to Poland, and only half that of the United Kingdom. Even if the population quadruples, it’ll only be a bit denser than Lebanon (392) or the Netherlands (395), about the same as the American state of New Jersey (452) and still less than contemporary Taiwan (636) or Bangladesh (1060). New Jersey, Taiwan and the Netherlands are all perfectly nice places to live; Bangladesh, rather less so, but they’ve managed to avoid complete catastrophe so far.

Also, Uganda’s very rapid growth means it will have a young population. If they can raise their standards of health and education, they’ll be well positioned for the demographic transition in a generation or two.

Pessimist: Unlike Taiwan or the Netherlands, Uganda is a landlocked country with limited trade (and horrible infrastructure). About a third of the country — the northern part, up near Sudan — is semidesert. The area around Lake Victoria has fertile soil and abundant rainfall, but it’s also suffering serious deforestation, erosion, and soil degradation. Absent massive investment, the country’s agricultural capacity is probably going down, not up; and no massive investment is in sight.

The country suffers from (take a deep breath, now) AIDs, afflicting about 6% of the population; malaria; illiteracy (about a third of all adults cannot read); massive corruption; intense poverty; crumbling infrastructure; brain drain; and a probably permanent current account deficit. Both wages and labor productivity are low even by African standards.

So, should Europe care?

Well… Uganda is very far from Europe. Relatively few Ugandans — compared to, say, Kenyans or Senegalese — ever come to Europe. There’s the brain drain, of course, with Ugandan doctors and nurses and engineers heading north to Britain (and, for some reason, Germany). But Ugandans, unlike Moroccans or Senegalese, cannot reach Europe by boat. And Uganda is so poor that only relatively wealthy or skilled Ugandans can contemplate buying a plane ticket out. Uganda is much more likely to export its problems to its neighbors — Kenya, Sudan, Congo — than to Europe.

Europe has basically zero strategic interests in Uganda. Unlike Somalia, it’s not producing pirates or harboring terrorists. The EU is Uganda’s major trade partner, but that’s mostly because the EU drinks a lot of Uganda’s major export, coffee. There’s some European investment there, but it’s pretty modest.

That said, there are some reasons for Europe to be interested. There are environmental concerns: tropical forests, biodiversity, chimpanzees, and such. And then of course there’s the humanitarian aspect. Uganda’s neighbors have already produced two of the most ghastly catastrophes of recent history: the Rwandan genocide and the Congolese civil war. Even the remote possibility of similar horrors should be enough to focus the attention.

I should add that right now “remote” seems the word; while Uganda is not exactly a liberal democracy, it seems tolerably stable, and no major crisis looms just now. Whether this will be the case after its population has doubled and then doubled again is another question, of course.

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About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

6 thoughts on “Uganda: So far from Europe

  1. Pingback: Imaginet Ltd » Uganda: So far from Europe | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European …

  2. David, why not?

    Uganda had just over 7 million people at independence, in 1960. So its population has already more than quadrupled in just under 50 years.

    The growth rate has barely slowed: Uganda’s TFR has dropped only slightly. And even if it falls to replacement levels over the next 20 years — very unlikely — demographic inertia would still cause the current population to more than double.

    People have tried running the numbers, BTW. The United Nations population division gives a “medium-variant” estimate of 91 million people at midcentury. However, this assumes that Uganda will undergo a fairly sharp fertility decline in the next generation. Meanwhile, the US Census Bureau — with only slightly more pessimistic projections — came up with a figure of 128 million. Uganda’s own Statistics Bureau refuses to speculate more than a decade ahead, but agrees that the country will have between 41 and 43 million by 2017.

    So, really, why not? (Barring catastrophe, of course.)

    Doug M.

  3. Well, there are a few scenarios for the countries currently experiencing runaway population growth:

    1. Fertility drops at some point to manageable levels. After all, this has happened or is underway in most of the world already. Then again, there may be some special conditions that will leave a small number of countries trapped in high fertility.

    2. Some kind of Malthusian catastrophe hits, and a large proportion of the population dies in a horrific manner (and not necessarily quickly, either – a catastrophe might take years to unfold).

    3. The population eventually stabilises as a result of a more chronic Malthusian check: lots of babies are still born, but child mortality increases to the point where only replacement numbers of girls reach childbearing age.

    4. Things continue as usual, but we end up with a world in which an ever-larger proportion of the total population is concentrated in the poorest countries, while the privileged few live in countries with most of the food, land, natural resources and infrastructure.

    5. These countries start exporting population on an unprecedented scale, far beyond the capacity, possibly just spreading the problems over a larger area, and leading to instability and conflict in the process.

    6. These countries find a magic way to develop economically while still having high population growth. This would have to involve a rapid move away from natural resources to labour-heavy industry and services, but unlike in the low-fertility world, a large proportion of GDP would be generated by child labour.

  4. Historical areas with a high density get rich. Uganda is getting that high density so they will get rich and with it the low population growth.