The southern fringe of the Sahara seems an odd place for a baby boom. This expanse of West Africa is just as parched and arid as you might think; its people endure perennial food shortages, sometimes escalating into famines. Yet the countries of the Sahel, as the region is known, have the fastest-growing populations in the world. Today, 74 million people live in Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad. By 2050, that is projected to nearly treble to 198 million.
Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world, with each woman giving birth an average of 7.6 times. The problem, of course, is not a booming population in itself, but the speed of growth. Niger’s population doubles every 20 years, meaning that the economy must also double in size equally fast, just to stop the country’s citizens from becoming even poorer per capita.
At first, I puzzled over why the Sahelian nations should be coping with population pressures on a unique scale – and then I discovered a big part of the explanation.
A third of Niger’s girls miss out on primary school; 90 per cent do not complete secondary education. The tragic consequence is that most women in Niger can neither read nor write: three-quarters of the female population aged between 15 and 24 are illiterate. Think of the waste and injustice represented by those baleful figures. Imagine the squandered talent and how the development of a nation is being held back.
And consider the trouble that humanity is storing up for the future, contained in the bleak fact that 131 million girls across the world are being deprived of an education. In some places there are not enough schools or teachers; in others, poverty and discrimination combine to keep girls out of the classroom.
That is why I have made the cause of female education a central priority of British foreign policy. My aim is to persuade every government to deliver a minimum of 12 years of quality schooling for every girl.
That goal is not only profoundly right in itself – it is also a metaphorical Swiss Army knife to fix a multitude of problems. If you want to reduce population pressures, boost economic growth, curb infant mortality and improve child nutrition, then one of the best ways is to ensure that all the girls in your country go to school.
The rapid growth in Niger’s population is partly explained by the fact that three-quarters of women are married before they reach adulthood. And child marriage is far more common if girls are denied an education.
None of this is assertion or conjecture: the hard facts tell the story. Women in sub-Saharan Africa who never attend school give birth an average of 6.7 times; for those with secondary education, the figure falls to 3.9.
A United Nations study found that if all girls went to secondary school, then the prevalence of child marriage would fall by two-thirds. Infant mortality would be cut in half – saving three million lives every year – and 12 million children would not have their growth stunted by malnutrition.
As for reducing poverty, each extra year of schooling raises a woman’s future wages by 12 per cent.
Governments must now get on with the job and do what is necessary. Penny Mordaunt’s Department for International Development (DfID) is doing great work in this field. At the beginning of February, it promised £225m for the Global Partnership for Education over three years, an increase of nearly 50 per cent on Britain’s previous contributions.
At the UK-France summit in January, DfID announced an extra £50m of British aid specifically for the Sahel, focused on a variety of needs including family planning. On this occasion, the Prime Minister and Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, jointly designated 2018 as the Global Year of Learning.
Another opportunity for action will come in April, when Britain welcomes the leaders of the 52 other Commonwealth countries to London for one of the biggest summits in our history. I will ensure that female education is high on the agenda as we lobby governments for more investment in schools.
But mere attendance in the classroom is not an end in itself: the aim must be to ensure that girls actually learn when they get there and master the key foundational skills of literacy and numeracy.
The time has come for all governments to do more. If we can ensure that every girl benefits from 12 years of quality education, this would be the single most powerful spur to development and progress. So let us pull together and do what we must. Justice demands no less.
Boris Johnson is the Foreign Secretary and Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip
This article appears in the 21 Feb 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia