Ethiopia’s population growth: A double-edged sword?

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Ethiopia’s population is booming at an alarmingly fast rate. A recent UN population report projected that Ethiopia will be the fifth largest contributor to world population growth between 2015 and 2050. It also estimated that the nation’s population currently stands just shy of the 100 million mark, at a whopping 99.4 million people.
With half the population aged under 20, we are forced to ponder a number of complex and difficult questions. Do we have what it takes to properly nourish, treat, educate, and employ everyone? Will rising rural flight overcrowd cities? Will Ethiopia become the next Bangladesh–a cheap labor hotspot for foreign multinational corporations? These are only a few of the inevitable thoughts provoked by rapidly shifting demographics.
Surely, Ethiopia has made remarkable strides in addressing issues of poverty, education and health, consistent with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The number of children in school has increased considerably over the past decade while new HIV and malaria infections have plummeted. Our country has indeed been hailed as one of the only nations to have met the MDGs by the 2015 target.
Still, with the population expected to nearly double by 2050, it is worth asking if merely meeting numeric developmental targets will endow Ethiopia with the educated, diverse and healthy workforce it needs.
When college graduates have trouble reading and writing, and first grade classrooms average over 100 students, it puts pressure on the notion that the metrics we have been relying on to track progress are actually reliable indicators of wholesome socio-economic growth.
The UN is expected to adopt its post-2015 development agenda next month, which will put a spotlight on a new era of development targets: the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs will focus on equitable, quality, people-centered growth, which will take into account different national realities and capacities.
It goes without saying that inclusive growth in Ethiopia is not without its considerable challenges. Over the past couple decades, socioeconomic development has lifted millions out of poverty and has delivered accessible basic resources to the people of Ethiopia. We are already working to address major obstacles to growth, including access to roads, potable water and electric power, among other infrastructural facilities. Meanwhile, urbanization has not caught up with the number of people leaving rural villages in search of better opportunities in cities such as Addis Ababa. On the other hand, those living in cities and employed in low-skilled or unskilled work often endure life-threatening conditions to move abroad as domestic workers. With increasingly crowded cities and socioeconomic opportunities that may be trailing behind the rate of population growth, creating the necessary safety nets for dozens of millions of young people will require a redoubling of efforts and perhaps a revisiting of current paths and objectives.
Not only is Ethiopia populous and growing quickly, but it is also incredibly young. The median age today stands at approximately 18.6 years. The onus of accommodating future generations presents itself as a mixed blessing–a public policy burden and a massive opportunity. Will we be satisfied with providing the bulk of young men and women primarily low-skilled work? Do we want to lead the way for the rest of Africa in nurturing a professional, creative and academically superior population, or will we be comfortable naturally morphing into an affordable industrial hub for the most developed nations? The answers to these questions will force us to think about the future we want to craft for Ethiopia and its people.