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Ghana’s population is young and rapidly urbanising - policies need to match the data

A crowd wearing colourful clothes in the streets
Ghana’s population can be described as rapidly urbanising and young. Wikimedia Commons/Flickr

Ghana’s population has reached 30.8 million according to the 2021 population census. This is a 6.1 million increase from the 24.7 million recorded in 2010. Understanding population trends is important to inform development policies – but Ghana has struggled to design policies aligned to available data. Demographer Donatus Yaw Atiglo unpacks the key issues facing Ghana’s growing population.

What is the age makeup of Ghana’s population?

It is important to look at the trends in the changing population structure.

Ghana’s population can be described as rapidly urbanising and youthful. Over the past five censuses, we see the structure of the population pyramid change from predominantly children under 15 to young people (aged 15-35 years).

The age composition of Ghana’s 31 million people, based on 2021 census data, indicates that about 35% are children (0-14 years), 38% young people (15-35 years), and about 4% are in the older population (65+).

A higher concentration (about 60%) of young people are in urban areas. This creates a pool of valuable labour, vibrant social participation as well as sources of creativity and innovation.

Overall, 60% are in the working age population. This suggests that there are fewer people in the dependent age groups relative to the working ages.

There is also a growing number of the elderly aged 65 and above, with implications for social security and healthcare.

The factor driving the change in the demographic profile is that women are having fewer children. The total fertility rate, which is the average number of children a woman has by the time she completes childbearing, assuming age-specific rates are held constant, has declined from about 6.4 births per woman in 1988 to 3.8 in 2021.

According to the Ghana Statistical Service, the country’s population will double within 33 years. And by 2050, the population of Ghana will be over 50 million. Population growth implies boundless opportunities for economic and social development. But it also presents significant challenges and barriers to sustainable development, where economic and environmental resources cannot match population growth.

Which age cohorts present the biggest challenges?

Population scientists have associated the demographic dividend with growth in the working population relative to children and the elderly. The logic is that a lower dependency ratio – in other words a high number of people of working age versus very young and very old people – carries economic growth potential. Dependent age groups (children under 15 years and old people 65 years and above) have traditionally been considered a burdensome population.

But cashing in on the demographic dividend depends on the quality of human resources and the opportunities for the working population. Without skills and jobs, having a large proportion of young people could be a liability, not an asset. They need education, skills, healthcare and employment.

In Ghana the size of this cohort should be bringing a demographic dividend. But it isn’t because there is a growing proportion that isn’t in education, employment or training.

Another pressure point is growing urbanisation. Three out of five people live in an urban area, up from about one out of every two in 2010 . This urban expansion has been largely unregulated, leading to a rise in urban poverty as well as overstretched infrastructure and social amenities. Over a quarter of urban residents live in multidimensional poverty.

Urban poverty, slum conditions, drug abuse, crime and unwanted pregnancies are all potential consequences of the large proportion of youth not in employment, education or training.

Older people are also a critical group that requires attention. People are living longer, with life expectancy at birth rising from 58 years in 2000 to 65 years by 2020. Older people have more health challenges and are therefore an increasing draw on a strained social security and health care systems.

How aligned are Ghana’s policies towards its population challenges?

Ghana has development policies on paper relating to health, education and gender. But the current mid- and long-term development policies of the country don’t consider population variables and the challenges they portend.

It behoves governments to consider population variables to identify future opportunities and challenges and guide resource allocation towards meeting the needs of the population.

Ghana failed to attain the main targets of the 1994 Population Policy. These included reducing the total fertility rate to 3.0, increasing life expectancy to 70 and increasing the proportion of women with secondary plus education to 80% by 2020.

Ghana also failed to achieve key targets of the Millennium Development Goals. These included eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and reducing under-five mortality by two thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters between 1990 and 2015.

But there is the potential to attain some targets of the Sustainable Development Goals related to equitable access to drinking water services, universal access to electricity by 2030.

Ghana has made significant gains in improving access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation. This has reduced deaths from infectious diseases and improved life expectancy.

But there is more to be done to improve quality of life, attain the sustainable development goals related to poverty, food security, health and environment, and prepare the country for the demographic dividend. For instance, increased secondary school enrolment and completion have not been matched by employment and tertiary education opportunities.

In addition, previous policies have not prepared the country to deal with the double burden of communicable and non-communicable diseases.

What are the key areas to focus on for development?

Ghana needs to consider the different needs of different population groups.

When it comes to young people, it needs to make significant progress in relevant education and training, with matching employment opportunities. This matters for two reasons: so that fewer educated youth are unemployed or underemployed, and so that they contribute to social security.

The elderly need healthcare as they age. The burden of healthcare on their caregivers must be considered. We need to invest in geriatric care services to ensure quality of life for the ageing population.

All this requires the use of population data and integration of population variables into sustainable development planning to reduce inequalities and improve population well-being.

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