Evaluating Case Studies: Girls Education Stabilizes Population Growth in Developing Countries

By Parnian Abunasr-Shiraz

In low- and middle-income countries, girls’ limited access to education leads to early childbirth, high total fertility rates, and population growth. However, analysis of Nigeria’s Universal Primary Education (UPE) program, implemented in the 1970s, found that four years of schooling for women under twenty-five reduced fertility by one child per woman. Evidence from Nigeria’s education program and similar scholarly studies in other developing nations also indicate that more educated women have fewer children and marry later, lowering total fertility rates and decreasing long-term population growth.

Data from demographic and health surveys in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya show striking differences between the varying levels of education, total fertility rate per woman, and average total fertility rate for each country. In Ethiopia, for example, the overall total fertility rate began to decline in the early-2000s due to the 1994 education reform. The 1987-born cohort of girls showed an increase in schooling of 0.8 years, resulting in a lower total fertility rate. Further, Ethiopia’s population growth has steadily declined since the early-1990s. 

Niger presents one of the most challenging cases of girls’ educational attainment, fertility rate, and population growth. With an estimated total population of 25 million people, Niger is facing a population growth crisis. Notably, studies show Niger’s fertility rate, above seven children per woman since the 1950s, has caused the country’s sharp population increase. As the country lags behind the rest of sub-Saharan Africa’s education levels, research continues to confirm that girls’ educational attainment strongly correlates with the country’s growing fertility rate. 

According to the main results of a UNICEF-funded project by Niger’s Ministry of Planning, “women with a secondary or higher education had on average three children less than women with a primary education or less (4.9 vs. 7.0 children, respectively) over the 2009 to 2012 period.” Significant results and partnerships from such studies play a critical role in linking girls’ access to education to total fertility rate and population growth. A critical, primary case of a nationwide program designed by the federal government to increase educational attainment comes from Nigeria’s Universal Primary Education (UPE) Program, which substantially impacted girls’ educational attainment and fertility rate. 

In 1960, Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom, and the country was divided into four semi-autonomous regions with their own administrative units of government. Each region began developing its own education policies, causing an educational imbalance across the regions. As a result, the federal government established the Nigerian Universal Primary Education (UPE) Program. Described as “one of the most ambitious education projects in African history,” the program aimed to provide tuition-free primary education to Nigerian children, increase the construction of primary school classrooms, and offer teacher-training institutions nationwide. Formally announced in 1974 and launched in 1976, the program charted the path towards a significant advancement in educational attainment for Nigerian children. In 1974, the gross primary enrollment rate was 60.3% for boys and only 40.3% for girls. Although the gross primary enrollment rate for both genders’ enrollments increased, Nigeria’s achievement in the rise of enrolled girls by the end of the program in 1981 is particularly impressive at 104.7%, given that girls’ educational attainment is at some of the lowest levels in sub-Saharan and northern Africa. 

With such an impressive result on girls’ exposure to schooling, Osili and Long from the National Bureau of Economics examined whether increases in girls’ education through Nigeria’s UPE program caused a reduction in fertility. By investigating the causal link, results from Osili and Long’s study indicated that “changes in schooling costs and the expansion of primary classrooms associated with the Nigerian UPE [provide evidence] that an additional year of schooling reduces the number of children born before age 25 by 0.26.” These results confirm that the program had a positive impact on lowering fertility through its positive effect on girls’ educational attainment. Further, Osili and Long concluded that “female education has a strong, negative association with early fertility,” suggesting the substantial influence that girls’ schooling has on long-term early childbearing, total fertility rate, and population growth. 

Despite the increasing gross primary enrollment for boys and girls, the federal government ended the UPE program in 1981 due to numerous factors, including lack of funding. The financing and control of primary schools were turned over to states and regional governments, resulting in the program’s downfall. Ending the program “also marked a significant reduction in funding resources available to primary schools,” according to Osili and Long. Most states reintroduced primary school tuition fees without the federal government’s funding assistance, and enrollment declined. As a result of the UPE program’s termination, there is not enough concrete data available for scholars to determine the long-term effects that the program could have had on Nigeria’s schooling for girls, fertility rates, and population growth. Yet, if the federal government had continued to lead the program and not reduced its funding, the program’s impact on girls’ schooling could have led to continued enrollment, lower total fertility rates, and a decline in population growth. 

The results of Nigeria’s UPE program exemplify that education policy in low- and middle-income countries significantly impacts girls’ educational attainment, total fertility rate, and population growth. The cost of not educating girls is detrimental, and there needs to be greater policy mobilization to improve educational attainment for girls. Gender equity and the critical role of low- and middle-income governments is a primary lesson to be learned from educational policies. These governments must commit to promoting education, ensuring long-term funding, and including all girls within education. The Nigerian government, for example, was dedicated to UPE for all children when the country announced and launched the program. However, due to a lack of funding and political will, the federal government transferred the program to state and local governments. With reduced funding and the reinstatement of school fees, regional and local governments, generally, may have less ongoing interest in maintaining UPE-type programs, thus leading to the termination of education initiatives. Therefore, it is critical that national governments oversee education policies to ensure inclusivity, financing, and long-lasting impact. 

Ethiopia’s total fertility rate (births per woman) from 1990 to 2019
Source: World Bank (2019). Fertility rate, total (births per woman) – Ethiopia


For example, Ethiopia’s 1994 education reform, implemented by the federal government, prompted an increase in girls’ education and lower fertility rates. Since the 1990s, Ethiopia has seen a considerable decline in its fertility rate and population growth as the government continues to commit to girls’ schooling and its benefits. A combination of factors, including women staying in school longer, family planning, and reduced poverty, has led women to delay childbearing and have fewer children to improve their quality of life. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s fertility rate in 1990 was at 7.25 total births per woman versus 4.25 total births per woman in 2018. With lower fertility rates, the country has kept population growth steady with an average 2.6% annual change. As the Ethiopian government continues its commitment to gender-equitable education policy, we can expect the country will continue to see more educated women and declines in fertility and population growth, leading to a more prosperous nation.

Ethiopia’s population growth (annual %) from 1990 to 2019
Source: World Bank (2019). Population growth – Ethiopia


Another lesson to be learned is through foreign aid and the partnership between governments and sponsoring bodies such as the World Bank. Wang and Zhuang conducted a study on the effectiveness of foreign aid on total fertility rates by using data on official development assistance (ODA) in 86 developing countries from 1970 to 2015. By exploring this relationship, they found ODA lowers the total fertility rate in aid recipient countries. Specifically, foreign aid per capita results in one fewer birth per every 200 women in the average economy of the countries used for the study. A similar study conducted by Azarnert investigated the relationship between foreign aid, fertility, and population growth in sub-Saharan Africa. Using a group of 43 sub-Saharan African countries and foreign aid received over the last four decades of the 20th century, the study suggests that foreign aid impacts population growth through fertility rates. Azarnert states that foreign aid to sub-Saharan Africa can have important implications for fertility rates and the design of policies. 

Moreover, collaboration between the World Bank — a sponsorship body — and governments is critical for girls’ education and promoting gender equality. For example, in Nigeria, the World Bank is working with the government to educate communities about high dropout rates among girls, gender inequality, and early marriage and childbearing. Despite these efforts, however, progress in girls’ schooling is stalling. Therefore, it is critical for donor countries, sponsoring bodies, and governments to mobilize around gender-equitable education policy to ensure girls are in school. Girls’ education should be a strategic development priority because when girls are more educated, they marry later, have fewer children, have the autonomy to make their own decisions, and participate in the labor market. As such education policies continue to be implemented long-term, countries will see a rise in educated women and a decline in total fertility rates and population growth. 

Numerous evaluations of education reforms and UPE programs indicate the importance of gender-equitable education policy, governmental oversight, funding, and commitment to seeing long-term decreases in total fertility and population growth. Additionally, as a growing body of research suggests the effects of foreign aid in reducing total fertility, donor countries and sponsoring bodies must mobilize to invest in low- and middle-income countries’ education systems to ensure girls’ schooling and a reduction in total fertility.  Ultimately, national case studies and scholarly research provide robust evidence that girls’ educational attainment has long-term stabilizing effects on total fertility and population growth, ensuring women have the autonomy to make their own economic and reproductive decisions while living more prosperous lives in developing countries.

Featured Image by Doug Linstedt on Unsplash

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