Capacity strengthening: the key to Africa’s sustainable development

18 November 2019

Keynote speech by Dr. Natalia Kanem, UNFPA Executive Director, at the 8th African Population Conference in Entebbe, Uganda [as delivered]


Your Excellency, Mr. Sekkanda, the Vice President of Uganda,

Hon. David Bahati, State Minister for Finance and Planning,

Dr. Fred Wabwire, Chair of the National Population Council of Uganda,

Dr. Jotham Muzingusi, Director General of the National Population Council,

Members of the Union of African Population Studies,

Distinguished Delegates,

Dear friends and colleagues, 

I am delighted to be with you today in this opening session of the 8th African Population Conference under the theme: “Harnessing Africa’s Population Dynamics for Sustainable Development – 25 years after Cairo and beyond”.

As you all know, I have just arrived from the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25, where over 9,500 participants and more than 160 governments renewed their commitments to the Programme of Action, and made many new financial and political commitments to accelerate the promise of the ICPD. Allow me to thank the Government of Uganda, first, for hosting this year’s African Population Conference, but especially for having participated at the highest level in Nairobi last week. Listening to H.E. President Museveni delivering the commitments of Uganda to accelerate the promise 25 years after Cairo was an epic moment for all of us present.

What also struck me in President Museveni’s speech in Nairobi was his insisting on the importance for the socio-economic transformation of our societies, and especially of African societies. Hence, the theme of this African Population Conference is particularly timely and relevant for the African continent. The Conference is essential to our shared work on development as it aims to highlight a people-centered approach to development planning.

Our mission at UNFPA is to deliver a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person's potential is fulfilled.

As most of you know, we are also supporting population census, civil registration and legal identity worldwide to ensure that everyone is counted and no one is left behind. And we work with partners across the globe to promote principles of human rights, equality and peace, and to create an environment conducive to the realization of every person’s potential – young or old, female or male, black or white, migrant or non-migrant, disabled or not. 

Justice, equality and peace are the foundation for sustainable development. Development that is characterized by inclusive growth to the benefit of all segments of society. These principles underpin the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, Agenda 2030 and Africa’s own Agenda 2063.   

The socio-economic transformation of Africa relies on good governance on one hand and also on knowing and understanding where vulnerability is more prominent and where communities are becoming more resilient. African countries need population data that allow us to locate those in remote settlements, identify and support those with the greatest need, and hold governments accountable.  UNFPA’s long expertise to leverage our unique offering of population and data analytics is what we offer to all parts of the world.

We commit to scaling up our support to countries in the production, dissemination and use of timely, reliable population data, analysis of population-development linkages, and the formulation of rights-based population policies and programmes. 

We commit to supporting countries in the implementation of the 2020 and 2030 rounds of census; hence, to support all countries to know and address their own demographic trajectories and trends, including population ageing and low fertility, as the basis for planning and action. 

Our commitments also extend to implementing the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. This includes scaling up support for the collection, analysis and dissemination of sex and age disaggregated data to identify and monitor the needs of women and girls in humanitarian contexts.

The mandate of the Union of African Population Scientists is strongly centered on strengthening human capacity and institutions in population data, statistics, and the provision of evidence to underpin development. 

This mandate was manifest in the Data Revolution launched by former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2015 – proposing data as the “new oil” to lubricate the wheels of progress. 

In the context of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda, Member States demanded a specific target (SDG Target 17.18) on data. It emphasized the need for high-quality, timely and reliable data disaggregated by income, gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability, geographic location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts. This is critical because population data are needed for 98 of the SDG targets, and only where governments can generate subnational population projections can we anticipate the future in all its diversity. The Union of African Population Scientists has an important role in ensuring that this SDG 17 target is met.  As the leading population scientists on the continent, you have the personal leverage and position to tackle this, and UNFPA stands in partnership with you. 

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me now to elaborate on 2 dimensions that are related to capacity strengthening:

  1. Strengthening education, individual training and national data systems 
  2. Improving individual rights and freedoms 

Modernizing education and training

Despite significant progress in primary school completion, spurred by the drive for universal primary education in the Millennium Development Goal era, secondary school enrollment stands at only 40 per cent in sub-Saharan Africa, lower than the average for all least developed countries combined (45 per cent). Gross enrollment at tertiary level is even lower, at 9 per cent.  

As a result, compared to other regions, sub-Saharan Africa has limited capacity for research and innovation. Yet, this is a precondition for developing a modern, smart and knowledge-based economy in the 21st century.

The impetus for UNFPA’s work in capacity building was re-emphasized in the ICPD Programme of Action in 1994 in Cairo.  Over the years, UNFPA has adopted a number of interrelated and mutually reinforcing approaches to assist developing countries in strengthening their capacities for the production and effective use of population data and statistics.

UNFPA’s involvement in building national capacity through individual training made a big difference in Africa, the region most in need of population specialists when UNFPA was established. 

The two flagship regional and research institutes set up by UNFPA, namely IFORD (Institut de Formation et Recherche Démographique) and RIPS (Regional Institute for Population Studies), have both trained generations of demographers, totaling well over 2,000. They are mostly serving in national statistical offices, government ministries and universities, and have led the work on population censuses and other areas. I take this opportunity to recognize the Young Statisticians here in the room who have joined the noble cause of producing evidence for decision making.

Turning to National Data Systems 

UNFPA’s assistance, along with support from the UN Statistics Division and other development partners, has improved capacity of national statistical offices and other line ministries involved in the production of data, as well as its availability and use. Much progress has been made, and more is still needed.

For many countries, the census is the primary source of data for development.  We are in the midst of the 2020 census round, with hopes that all people, in all countries, will be counted and accounted for.  We face delays in census across the world, but especially on the continent. For some governments this reflects a lack of funding or planning, humanitarian crises or insecurity, or the lack of human capacity in modern census methods.  

Many countries are modernizing their census methodologies, which calls for a new generation of population data experts to ensure generation and utilization of georeferenced census data. UNFPA is committed to providing support for modern census. With projects like GRID3, we are able to address some of these needs, but not all. More human capacity is needed and you should have a leading role. 

Strengthening legal identity systems requires a whole of government approach. At UNFPA, we are partnering with governments, our UN partners and the World Bank to strengthen legal identity systems in Africa and beyond. This calls for routine production of vital statistics, and you, as population scientists, have an essential role to play. You can compare census and civil registration to locate where registration coverage is poor, who is left behind, and where further investments are needed. 

Marriage registration is critically important as an enabler of gender equality and therefore a crucial facilitator of sustainable development.  Many African countries do not issue marriage certificates for customary marriages because they are not legally recognized, despite being practiced by significant proportions of the population. This leaves many people involved in these marriages, particularly women, without the protection of the marriage certificate. This must change and UNFPA continues to advocate for the registration of all marriages, regardless of type, to honour and protect all women in unions.

Improving individual rights and freedoms 

Lastly, let me turn to the fundamental enabler of development, which is the assurance of human rights and choices, particularly for women and girls. They, too, can become actors in the Data Revolution. At UNFPA, we are dedicated to advancing gender equality and to eliminating discriminatory practices, such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, and to ending gender-based violence. 

Data can help, and so can you as statisticians and analysts.  

ICPD highlighted women’s discrimination, but in 1994 governments had very little data for the systematic tracking of gender inequality, gender-based violence, or harmful practices. Five years after Cairo, the Demographic and Health Surveys offered a module to measure women’s power in the household and developed the first standard module for collecting data on violence against women. Standardized measures on time use have since reinforced our understanding of the high unpaid burden of women’s lives. 

New SDG metrics on women’s right to decision-making (indicator 5.6.1 of the SDGs) are covering more countries each year. These data suggest that, among 47 countries reporting, only 53% of married women are empowered to make decisions on reproductive health and rights, ranging from 40% in Central and West Africa to 80% in Europe and Latin America.  New data like this shine a light on discrimination, and give us the power to track progress in women’s empowerment, or where a backlash may be under way. 


While the decline in FGM within 24 high-prevalence countries is substantial, too few countries affected by FGM have the sub-national data to track where it is declining and why, and where it continues. The global decline in the proportion of girls affected masks significant differences both within and between countries. The rapid decline in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Kenya is not evident in Chad, the Gambia, Guinea or Nigeria. 

Child Marriage and GBV

Child marriage and GBV patterns are similar, and there is a comparable need for better research and tracking. While the global percentage of young women who were married before age 18 has declined from 34% in 1994 to 25% today, the absolute number of girls at risk has risen due to population growth in affected countries. Laws setting the legal age of marriage at 18 or higher are now implemented in 32 of 54 African countries. Yet, we cannot say how effective these laws have been, especially in places where neither birth nor marriage registration are the norm.  If FGM and child marriage need better data and research, much more challenging is the study of gender-based violence, both in societies at peace and in humanitarian settings. Girls and young women with disabilities are at greater risk, experiencing four times more violence than those without disabilities. 

The global 16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence Campaign, which starts a week from now on Monday, 25 November, under the theme “Orange the World: Generation Equality Stands against Rape”, and movements like #MeToo, have claimed public space to amplify the voices of survivors. Yet, let me encourage you, as researchers, to take on this mantle and bring your special skills to bear on these problems.

Unmet need for contraception 

Finally, at UNFPA we are committed to ending preventable maternal deaths, and reaching zero unmet need for contraception.  Africa will be a major focus of these efforts – as the continent has some of the highest rates of maternal death worldwide, and an estimated 143 million women with an unmet need for modern contraception. 

All of these challenges call for young minds and new data, better accountability, and the research that will deepen our collective understanding of what works to prevent violence and harmful practices, deliver universal health care, and fulfill the promise of development for all women and girls.


The benefits of deliberate capacity strengthening in population research can create an Africa that is more just, more equitable, more peaceful -- an Africa where every person’s potential is realized, laying a solid foundation for sustainable social and economic development. The research community needs to adjust to new innovations and realities, and apply these to the major social problems of today.  We are living in the fourth industrial revolution, where training and research in the area of population and development embrace the ICT revolution of digitization, satellite imagery, new data analytics and small area estimates, supported by high resolution GIS mapping.  Data are increasingly geo-spatial, enabling us to visualize inequalities. These are powerful tools, and they need to be embedded within the training and data systems of the continent. This will prepare the next generation to ask more complex questions. It will inform our ambitions at UNFPA to achieve our three transformative results and to ensure that the incredible energy and commitments from Nairobi do not stay in Nairobi.

Let us work together to fulfill commitments for a better world, through a revolution in population research and training that helps us zero in on the needs of those furthest behind and create more just, equitable, peaceful and prosperous societies. 

Thank you. 

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