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August 24, 2019

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Pay attention to Africa as it continues to grow

When experts discuss major international and geopolitical hotspots around the world, the list usually includes places such as China, Russia and the Middle East. Those are all rightfully mentioned given national security and global competitiveness concerns.

Yet a focus only on those hotspots overlooks the strategic importance of Africa. There are a variety of reasons that Africa should not be overlooked, with a primary one being the growth that the continent will continue to experience into the future.

While many other regions will have flat or declining populations in the decades to come, Africa’s population is exploding. According to projections, it will grow from 1 billion people in 2015 to 4 billion in 2100.

And while the rest of the world is getting older, Africa’s population is getting younger. The median age is 18, compared with 35 in North America. Because human capital is vital to economic growth and prosperity, this younger, growing population can serve as a real opportunity for the continent — if Africa ensures its citizens are able to live long and healthy lives.

It is also essential that strong support systems in education and health exist on the continent. While some progress has been made in education, there is a still a long way to go and the growing population only makes rapid progress more important. According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of out-of-school youths in the world; over one-fifth of children from ages 6 to 11 and one-third of 12-14 are out of school.

Future success is predicated on developing the knowledge, skills and talents of this growing population of young people. That is especially crucial because the continent is among the world’s most rapidly growing economic regions.

Some of the most significant progress in recent decades in Africa has been in health. The maternal and child death rate has declined, HIV is reaching epidemic control in many countries, and malaria infections have decreased. These advances mean that life expectancy has increased and chances are higher than ever that people are leading healthy and productive lives.

Good governance is also key to Africa’s prosperity. Rule of law, transparency, accountability and economic opportunity lead to stable societies and higher quality of life. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance shows that over the past 10 years, 34 out of 54 countries have improved their government performance. 

Countries like Kenya and Namibia have seen significant improvements, yet too many other countries have stalled or regressed. This same report shows that governance is not improving across the continent at a fast enough pace to keep up with the growing population.

We also need to keep an eye out for the growing presence of terrorist organizations on the continent. While more of the United States’ focus has been on counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East, Africa has proven to be fertile recruiting territory for organizations affiliated with al-Qaida and ISIS.

Terrorist attacks have taken place in the past year in places like Niger, Somalia, the Congo and Mozambique. Young people without economic opportunity are particularly at risk of being recruited by these groups, which makes good education, governance and economic prosperity especially vital.

At the same time, countries like China and Russia are doing their best to exert more political and economic influence on the continent. We should be concerned that China is weighing down African nations with infrastructure projects that are unsustainable and burden countries with significant debt loads.

China is also a major consumer of natural resources from Africa. And promoting good governance has not been at the top of China’s agenda, further exacerbating progress on the continent. 

Add up all of these intertwining factors — the significant population growth and opportunities for the continent with a set of challenges that could limit its potential — and it’s clear that Africa deserves the attention and support of American foreign policy makers. The rest of us across the country also would do well to closely watch this dynamic, changing continent.

Holly Kuzmich is executive director of the George W. Bush Institute and senior vice president at the George W. Bush Presidential Center. This essay originally appeared in “The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute.” It is distributed by