UW prof demystifies population growth issues in Ethiopia

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New UW professor Dr. Teferi Mergo is already making a big splash for UW&rsquo;s economics department. A paper he co-authored with former mentors from the University of California, Berkeley, titled &ldquo;Is Low Fertility Really a Problem? Population Aging, Dependency, and Consumption&rdquo; was published in the journal <em>Science</em>.


The study, spearheaded by Berkeley professor Ronald Lee and University of Hawaii professor Andrew Mason, looked at data from 40 countries with National Transfer Account (NTA) researchers to determine what fertility level and what age distribution finds a happy medium between raising children and caring for seniors.


Mergo looked specifically at his home country, Ethiopia, as part of the broader African NTA group, which includes Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal, Mozambique, Benin, South Africa, and Egypt.


&ldquo;So this is a collaborative effort between a number of researchers in different countries,&rdquo; Mergo said. &ldquo;[We look at] the effects of change in population size and most importantly in age distribution &hellip; on standard of living and other economic outcomes.&rdquo;


In Ethiopia, population growth has not been uniform.


&ldquo;It&rsquo;s not a black and white thing. Historically [Ethiopia] has had very high birth rates, even today there [are regional] variations within Ethiopia. Some regions have come to register some impressive decline in fertility rates whereas others are really following their traditional trajectories of population decline,&rdquo; he said. In a separate email, Mergo noted that Ethiopia currently has &ldquo;one of the highest population growth rates in the world&rdquo; at 2.9 per cent annually.&nbsp;


So far, Mergo said that researchers aren&rsquo;t quite sure what factors contribute to population decline.


&ldquo;Fertility decline, we haven&rsquo;t really kind of nailed down &hellip; There are a number of candidate explanations, some emphasize supply factors, others, typically economists, go demand factors are responsible. Hence, the idea is, population declines or fertility declines with economic growth. As families become richer &hellip; population goes down.


&ldquo;Demographers emphasize the idea that we can really manipulate population through family planning interventions and all sort of supply side interventions. So different countries have different experiences&hellip; The frontier now is Africa, or some of these low-income countries. We&rsquo;re still gathering evidence,&rdquo; he said.


Research is still ongoing to see what factors could be replicated. However, he does say that there are success stories in sub-Saharan Africa, rapid decline in maternal mortality being one.


&ldquo;Someone in my position would really go and document these, where we have these success stories and try to understand what is going on and could they be scaled up, could they be replicated in other parts that aren&rsquo;t doing as well,&rdquo; he said.


Currently based at St. Paul&rsquo;s, Mergo focused his research on &ldquo;population growth, aging, and movement, with an emphasis on the African continent.&rdquo; Mergo was born in Ethiopia and says that the famine of 1980s was a defining moment for his generation and an event that inspired his interest in development economics.


&ldquo;I chose to pursue economics and study development economics with the intention of really trying to contribute to knowledge, why these things happen.&rdquo; He joined the University of Waterloo in 2014.


For students looking to study developmental economics, he suggests to &ldquo;just go for it.&rdquo;


&ldquo;If you have interest in development economics, I could only tell [you] &lsquo;just go for it.&rsquo; It is a field that is growing, one might even say exploding in some sense. It&rsquo;s fun,&rdquo; Mergo said.


&ldquo;It&rsquo;s exciting times to be a development economist because we might just be seeing this cycle [of poverty] being broken, one small step at a time. Wouldn&rsquo;t it be fun to be a part of this, to be a part of a group of people who contributed in some small way to that understanding that really unlocked this mystery?&rdquo;


Mergo plans to continue research in Ethiopia and is in the planning stages for further projects.