Demographic Trends and Youth Empowerment in Africa

Available Downloads

Opportunities for U.S. Engagement

Many of the fastest growing populations are in the world’s poorest countries, putting them at a critical threshold: either they will accelerate economic growth and innovation by investing in their burgeoning youth population or the rapid population growth coupled with a shortage of opportunities for young people will undermine advances in health, development, and ultimately security. These demographic trends, most notable in sub-Saharan Africa, are often referred to as a “youth boom” or a “youth bulge.” Given the enormous implications of these demographic shifts, U.S. assistance should promote young people’s health and development, with particular emphasis on empowering young women. Investments in human capital and gender equality would yield enormous benefits in improving health, reducing poverty, and increasing economic and political stability. Given that these goals align so strongly with U.S. national interests, they benefit from strong bipartisan support.
The U.S. government has an important role to play in helping countries address these demographic issues by expanding access to adolescent health, voluntary family planning, HIV services, educational opportunities for girls, and youth employment, and ensuring the meaningful engagement of young people in program design and implementation. This builds on a remarkable legacy of U.S. engagement in many areas that could help countries to empower young people and build critical life skills and resilience.
This paper outlines a number of policy options that Congress could undertake to advance these goals, including: establishing a youth health and empowerment fund within USAID to incentivize USAID missions to develop a cross-sectoral package of services to address both the root causes of the demographic trends and the immediate needs of young people; holding hearings on the demographic trends and their potential impact (both positive and negative) on U.S. health, development, and security goals for the region, to determine if a new, multi-sector approach is needed; ensuring that the new U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (IDFC) invests in women’s economic empowerment and health in developing countries; and requesting more in-depth analysis from the intelligence community examining how gender inequality and the demographic trends—including youthful age structure and rapid urbanization—in fragile states contribute to economic and political instability and pose threats to regional security.

This brief is made possible by the generous support of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.



Janet Fleischman
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Global Health Policy Center