Pakistan's rapidly rising population – inhibiting cost or capabilities capital?
Pakistan’s fertility rate (births per woman) of 3.55 as disclosed in the United Nations report ‘2019 World Population Prospects’ is the second highest in South Asia, where the average is 2.38, and is also significantly higher than the world average of 2.47. Pakistan’s population growth rate at 2 per cent is almost twice the global average of 1.05 per cent and puts it in the top quartile of 200 countries. While a rapidly rising population has the potential of bearing demographic dividends as young people become productive adults if adequately educated and skilled, in the short and medium-term it leads to large numbers of dependent children.
As noted by the economist, Thomas Picketty, economic growth “includes a purely demographic component and a purely economic component, and only the latter allows for an improvement in the standard of living”. Empirical evidence indicates that for low-income developing countries there is a significant reduction in fertility rates preceding high per capita income growth rates. China and Vietnam were the first to lower their fertility rates among developing countries in the region, and also the first to experience economic take off. Having experienced a fertility rate above 4 in the 1960s and early 70s, China’s rate rapidly declined in the eighties to below 2 by 1992, and similarly in Vietnam it rapidly declined in the 1990s to reach around 2 by 2000. More recently India and Bangladesh have followed suit and their respective per capita GDP growth has correspondingly picked up.
Between 2000 and 2019, China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh – all countries that have seen fertility rates decline rapidly – saw their per capita income increase by 900 per cent, 600 per cent, 370 per cent and 345 per cent respectively. In comparison, Pakistan, with its continuing high fertility, saw income per capita grow by only 122 per cent in the same period. Empirical evidence suggests that few developing countries, excluding those that are mineral resource rich, have made the transition from a low-income developing status to a medium-income country status without a significant reduction in their fertility rate.
Policy measures need to be inclusive and in keeping with cultural and religious sensitivities. A critical component of these must be to expand existing programs to improve access to and quality of reproductive, maternal, child, and adolescent health services.
One of the explanations offered for this pattern is that the reduction of population growth rates frees investment resources from having to cater predominantly to the needs of a growing population (more schools, more hospitals, more housing) to being allocated towards productive investments. Declining fertility results in increasing personal savings and the ability to invest, as well as greater female labor force participation. Moreover, the per capita public sector spending on health and education increases to improve overall development outcomes. The virtuous cycle thereby created results in further accelerating fast-growing economies while those stuck in the slow growth path continue to fall behind at an increasing pace. Consequently, the gap between fast-growing and slow-growing countries expands dramatically.
As it bears the burden of a rapidly rising population and accompanying low economic growth, Pakistan risks ending up as a poor state surrounded by rich and powerful economies, with resultant adverse security implications. There is therefore an urgent need for policy measures to lower the fertility rate, but these must avoid encroaching on individual liberties and must certainly not be seen as coercive in any manner. The population control campaign through a sterilization drive of mostly poor men, which was launched in India in 1976 during Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule, was not only extremely unpopular but also unsustainable and of questionable efficacy.
Policy measures need to be inclusive and in keeping with cultural and religious sensitivities. A critical component of these must be to expand existing programs to improve access to and quality of reproductive, maternal, child, and adolescent health services. As well as investment in family planning efforts, there has to be a concerted effort to increase women's empowerment in all segments of society. Greater female labor force participation will enable women to make their own decisions regarding how many children they want to have, work more outside the home and invest more resources in their children's education.
Bangladesh’s efforts at population control were greatly helped by enabling women to work in their garment industry by providing them with ‘women only’ transport buses. As more women became breadwinners and the family’s welfare was tied to their income, the fertility rate dropped dramatically. In Pakistan’s conurbations, the fast-growing Information Communication Technology (ICT), financial services, and hospitality sectors offer similar opportunities for greater women participation in the workforce if their concerns about physical mobility and personal safety can be suitably addressed. As well as promoting economic inclusion of women, there also have to be direct interventions to increase female education through the provision of girl-friendly schools.
Finally, the growing number of youth entering adulthood presently, namely Pakistan’s youth bulge, needs to be converted into a positive demographic dividend by equipping them with the necessary education and skills such that they can meet the demands of the evolving labor market.
- Javed Hassan has worked in senior executive positions both in the profit and non-profit sector in Pakistan and internationally. He’s an investment banker by training.