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.