political revue


Year LXIII, 2021, Single Issue, Page 43






The world, as part of a radical process of change and redefinition, is currently undergoing a rapid and profound structural transformation that is altering both the distribution of political power and international balances. 

The phenomena responsible for triggering this change, or which characterise it, fall into three main categories: i) social and demographic; ii) economic; iii) political and institutional. Of course, the value of categorising processes of change in this way is purely analytical, as doing so can help us to understand the issues at hand. In reality, however, these three categories are not just strictly interdependent, but also closely intertwined.

The World Population Prospects 2019 research report, prepared by the Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat, contains estimates and projections useful for evaluating the social and demographic trends that will characterise the evolution of the world over the coming decades. It highlights dynamics that need to be taken into account in order to allow responsible political planning within a broad and comprehensive framework.[1]

According to the report, several general global population trends can be identified. First of all, the world’s population is continuing to grow, albeit at a declining pace; second, it is growing older, partly due to increased longevity. These general trends generate crucial effects and challenges that differ depending on the context. In some countries, sustained low fertility or emigration is leading to decreasing population sizes. In others, declining fertility “is creating demographic conditions favourable for accelerated economic growth”. Finally, the report confirms the ongoing global increase in longevity and the narrowing gap between rich and poor countries, while also pointing to significant disparities in survival that persist across countries and regions”.[2]

My aim here is to examine some of the data contained in the report in relation to: three important indices, two time points (2020 and 2050), and two macro-regions whose destinies are conditioned by their close interdependence, i.e., Europe and Africa. What changes will these three decades bring? What processes do we need to identify, understand and then govern?

The first index to be evaluated is the total fertility rate, which is the average number of births per woman.

For the period 2020–2025, the report gives this as 1.62 in Europe, as opposed to an average of 4.16 births per woman in Africa. For the period 2045–2050, the European figure remains substantially unchanged (1.72), whereas for Africa it shows a significant reduction (3.07).

The second index to consider is the potential support ratio, which is the number of people aged 25–64 years for every person aged 65 or older; in other words, the number of working age people potentially supporting each non-working individual. In Europe, this ratio was 2.9:1 in 2020, whereas Africa had 10.5 working-age people per individual over 65. Thirty years on, in 2050, the European ratio is expected to fall to 1.7:1; the African one, too, is expected to decline, while nevertheless remaining high: an average of 7.6 people of working age for every person aged 65 or over. The third important index that can help to give us an idea of these two continents’ prospects for social and demographic change is the percentage of the total population aged 65 or over. In 2020, it was 19.1 per cent in Europe, but is projected to rise to a mean of 28.1 per cent by 2050, while the corresponding percentages for sub-Saharan Africa are 3.5 per cent and 5.7 per cent respectively.

What outlook emerges from consideration of the data offered by these indices and from diachronic comparison of these two regions?

What the data tell us is that Europe, over the three decades in question, will see an increase in the elderly, non-productive, dependent section of the population. There will be a drop in the potential support ratio, in other words, a fall in the ratio of working-age to retirement-age people; birth rates, on the other hand, will remain stable. All this translates into an increasing dependent population and a shrinking productive one.

The picture is radically different in Africa, where fertility rates in particular, currently very high, are destined to decrease. Accordingly, African society, especially in the sub-Saharan part of the region, looks set to become characterised by a largely working-age population with a smaller proportion of children. As the document explains: “In most of sub-Saharan Africa, (…) recent reductions in fertility mean that the population at working ages (25 to 64 years) is growing faster than in other age groups, providing an opportunity for accelerated economic growth known as the ‘demographic dividend’.”2 This term refers to the potential economic growth that can derive from changes in a country’s population structure: when fertility rates decline, the working-age population increases in proportion to the young, dependent segment. With more members of the workforce and fewer dependent minors, a political community finds itself with a window of opportunity for stimulating and possibly achieving rapid economic growth.[3]

As a first consideration, it can be noted that, against a backdrop of several general trends (global ageing, slowing global population growth, falling fertility rates), different regional patterns emerge.

A second consideration concerns the interdependence between the processes of change mentioned at the start of this piece. Africa, more specifically sub-Saharan Africa, has a demographic dividend that harbours the potential for economic growth. As such, it provides an example of how processes of social and demographic change can stimulate processes of economic change. However, the link between these processes is neither certain nor definitive. The latter can follow the former if — and only if — trends of social change are adequately governed, in other words, only if the right investments are made and strategic social and economic policies are implemented. And this brings us on to the third category of phenomena and processes of change, namely those of an institutional and political nature.

When reflecting upon the question of social and economic potential, there is, in fact, also a political aspect that needs to be considered. Many African states are fragile structures: regimes with low governance capacity, sometimes flanked by non-institutional power structures that wield considerable influence (economic, social and organisational). African society has a problematic relationship with the state, and unless steps are taken to resolve this, it will remain complicated, if not impossible, to invest in the continent’s economic and production potential.

This consideration is a premise for solving a second problem: Africa’s fragmentation. At present, the continent’s states show very little political convergence in terms of social and economic development, and the various political regimes often have very different structures. How can a politically fragmented continent with fragile structures of state possibly govern and positively express the development potential inherent in the demographic dividend?

The aim of these general remarks has been to pave the way for the presentation of an idea, namely that two political leaps will have to be made before this continent’s potential can be realised: there will need to be a quality leap in terms of state structures, and this will have to be followed by a transition to a supranational political system, because the African countries’ currently low level of interdependence leaves scope for interference by third countries, ready to exploit the continent’s differences to their own advantage.

At this point, I believe it is easy to see why the destinies of Europe and Africa can be considered intertwined: Europe is a politically stable and, it is to be hoped, an increasingly integrated continent, yet it is old in demographic terms and harbours no unexpressed economic potential. Africa, on the other hand, is a young continent with enormous latent economic potential; however, it lacks a strong political structure and a homogeneous and resilient social fabric.

It is, I believe, in the face of three specific challenges that these two continents (on account of the complementarity of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their geographical proximity) find their destinies intertwined. The first is a social challenge, today primarily consisting of the migration crisis. The second is economic: the challenge of promoting the realisation of Africa’s economic potential, while helping it to pursue conscious resource management. The third and final challenge is political, and it concerns the African Union, an international organisation that recently took a hugely important step, adopting the treaty establishing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which is the largest such area in the world, including 54 of Africa’s 55 states. Inspired by the European Union, this organisation is following in the EU’s footsteps and replicating its institutional framework. The European Union is the most advanced attempt to bring about a profound process of transformation of the global political structure, and thus to address the inability of the nation-state model to withstand the challenges of global interdependence. It is the highest expression of a process of integration that is also being pursued in other parts of the world: we need only think of the of the aforementioned African Union, of Mercosur, and of ASEAN. Arguably, were Europe to completely abandon the objective of political integration, leaving the European project confined to the narrower framework of economic integration, it is likely that Africa would follow suit.

Africa’s capacity to govern these processes of change and to express its economic and social potential therefore depends, in part, on Europe’s ability to be a stimulating partner, able to show how to establish a federal political union. And the route it maps out cannot fail to include the crucial matter of creating a European fiscal capacity, meaning the power to collect resources and spend them in the general interest of the political community. Because this is the only route that can lead to an embryonic form of shared sovereignty at European level, whose realisation will require strong democratic control exercised by an institution representing the citizens of Europe: the federal parliament. For all this to materialise, the European Union must strive to overcome the impasse that sometimes seems to force regional integration processes to remain within a purely economic framework, never allowing them to enter a fully political dimension. Alone, the economic solution is a mere palliative, which will cease to be effective as the interdependencies between social change, economic evolution and politics begin throwing up critical problems that can no longer be resolved.

Andrea Apollonio

[1] Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, 2019 Revision of World Population Prospects,

[2] Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, World Population Prospects 2019, Highlights,

[3] For a more detailed explanation of the “demographic dividend” concept, see the Demographic dividend section of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), website:



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