Some of the fastest growing economies in the world today are in East Asia and Latin America – countries that were among the poorest in the world just 40-50 years ago. A distinguishing common feature of these countries today is that the working age population—those between 15 and 64—is larger than the dependent population—the very young and old.

The demographic dividend  is an opportunity that arises when a country transitions from high to low rates of fertility and child and infant mortality. This transition creates a generation that is significantly larger than the generations immediately preceding and following it.  As this cohort enters working age, they have the potential to enter into productive economic activities and invest savings at relatively high rates, thus spurring heightened economic growth.

Maximizing the dividend requires social and economic policies that reinforce inclusion, equity, and opportunity across the entire population. In order to reap a potential demographic dividend, countries must accelerate reductions in child mortality, increase access to family planning, ensure strong education, especially of girls and women, adequately prepare the workforce and spur entrepreneurship, and institute sound fiscal and labor policies to create the conditions for working-age citizens to be most productive.

Although several African countries are poised to follow in the footsteps of East Asia and Latin America, populations are still very youthful and growing, making Africa the only continent that will double in population by 2050. Whether Sub-Saharan African countries reap a demographic dividend will depend on choices made today.  Investing in key preventive child survival interventions including family planning will yield an immediate health dividend.  And by coupling these investments with increasing girls’ education and creating economic opportunity especially among youth and women, countries can be positioned to realize a lasting demographic dividend.

This Thursday, at 2:30 EDT, I’ll be participating in a panel discussion on the demographic dividend at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Join the conversation by watching the webcast,  asking questions, and sharing your comments.