Washington — Black Africa stands on a population treadmill, slipping backward toward the threat of Malthusian famine. There is, fortunately, a new awareness in sub-Saharan Africa on the part of both governments and some families of the need to limit the number of births to facilitate economic progress. But it is uncertain whether changes in attitudes concerning family size will be fast enough to prevent a grim future.
``We haven't got time on our side,'' notes Frederick T. Sai, a Ghanaian doctor and senior population adviser to the World Bank.
The population numbers are not encouraging.
The region has 459 million people divided into more than 800 ethnic groups. Nearly all African countries have relatively small populations by world standards. Only six nations (Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Zaire) exceed 20 million.
But Africa's population growth is extraordinarily rapid. It is the only major region in the world where population growth rates have not declined. The population rate in Latin America peaked at 2.9 percent a year in the early 1960s and has now fallen to 2.4 percent. The rate for South Asia rose a little above 2.5 percent in the late 1960s and has since dropped to 2.1 percent.
By contrast, in sub-Saharan Africa population growth has risen from 2.5 percent a year in 1960 to 3 percent in 1983. The World Bank's ``standard'' projection shows population growing to 730 million by 2000 and 1.8 billion by 2050. That projection assumes continuing economic and social progress, with some acceleration in efforts to encourage family planning, and thus a decline in fertility beginning in the next five to 10 years.
Even that 730 million number is too many people.
In theory, Africa's land could adequately feed several times the current population. ``That would, however, entail substantial migration within countries and across international borders from more populated to less populated areas,'' a recent World Bank study notes. ``It would also require investments in irrigation, new technology, and assistance to small farmers on a scale that is unlikely to be achieved soon.''
Only a few countries, all outside Africa, have achieved growth rates in agriculture of more than 3 percent a year for sustained periods - a growth rate that would be necessary just to sustain the inadequate current standards of nutrition in black Africa.
In sub-Saharan Africa, farm output grew 2.5 percent a year in the 1960s and 1.4 percent a year in the 1970s. That is not considered enough. Without change, the prevention of African famine would require food aid programs that would dwarf those of the last two years.
What's to be done?
The World Bank has given population control assistance its top priority in Africa.
Currently, total public and private spending on family planning in Africa is less than $100 million. About $53 million is provided by the World Bank or other external sources. The bank figures it will take about $640 million (in 1964 dollars) by the year 2000 to increase contraception by women of reproductive age to some 25 percent from 3 or 4 percent today. That could reduce the birthrate by more than one percentage point.
Dr. Sai says money spent on family planning is the most cost-efficient way to help Africa make economic progress, including better health and education.
Along with birth-control services, there will have to be a dramatic shift in African views on child-bearing. At present, various surveys show that African mothers want five to eight children. Particularly those who are less educated find that children boost their status in society.
In addition, the extended family that is common in Africa removes some of the direct individual economic penalty of a large family. And as in other developing countries without social welfare systems, children are a form of old-age pension. Since many children die early in Africa, parents with a large family have greater assurance of being looked after in their senior years.
Until a few years ago, African governments viewed rising population as no problem at all, or even, in a few cases, as an economic and political asset, notes Ernest Stern, a top World Bank official. Now officials have begun to recognize the danger of population booms and have been expanding population control programs.
Among the general population, views on family size are changing - but not fast enough. Sai confesses to being somewhat frightened by the population explosion. But he adds: `People should not look at the magnitude of this thing and think it is a dead cause. It is something that, with dedication, is manageable.''