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Managing population growth

Updated December 09, 2014


The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.
The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

THERE are fundamental differences between the process of demographic transition that was witnessed in the developed world and the one with which we are confronted. In the developed countries, socio-economic development took place before modern health techniques were developed. Death rates in Europe fell as a result of higher standards of living through economic development and not because of access to improved health technologies, with their present high levels of efficiency.

Contrast this with our situation. We have experienced a sharp decline in death rates because of highly sophisticated (relatively speaking) health technologies. As a result, the death rate has fallen from 44.5 per 1,000 persons in 1900, to 31 at the time of independence to as low as 6.9 today, resulting in a population growth rate of 2pc now compared with more than 3pc per annum until the 1980s.

Know more: Unemployment on the rise

Europe never saw a population growth in excess of 1.5pc throughout its phase of rapid development. Europe’s population increased 300pc in 150 years but its economic production rose by 400pc during the same period. Europeans also migrated to other lands, their colonies, which resulted in 20pc of the annual increase in population settling in other lands.

Moreover, their birth rates did not fall because of increased use of contraceptives. Birth rates declined primarily on account of higher literacy, improved standards of living, changing value systems, social welfare programmes for the elderly, etc.

Also read: ‘Decline in birth rate due to rise in abortions’

The demographic transition, therefore, come about because of socio-economic development and not as a result of birth control programmes and improved health technologies that drastically reduced death rates. Consequently, the issue of a growth rate of population did not serve as a drag on development and growth in the industrialised countries.

Our population growth rate has declined but at a slower rate than is desirable.

As mentioned above, we have a relatively high population growth rate, 2pc in contrast with less than 1.1pc, the average for the region (excluding Afghanistan) and a fertility rate of 3.2 compared with less than the average of 2.4 for the rest of South Asia (excluding Afghanistan). These rapid rates of growth are putting pressure on matters pertaining to food security, the environment and urbanisation and the associated infrastructure for basic services of education, health, drinking water supply, disposal of sewage and solid waste.

The financing of these infrastructural facilities and the operational aspects (both human and non-salary inputs) of the delivery of these services poses a serious challenge, requiring the economically productive members of the population to generate adequate resources (through additional taxes) to fund these provisions for non-productive members.

The dependency ratios are high given the age composition of the national population, 41pc being less than 15 years. This high level of dependency has also resulted in lower household saving rates and thereby fewer resources domestically to fund private- and public-sector investment critical for stimulating growth, especially with high government revenue deficits siphoning off a huge chunk of these already meagre resources.

This is important because the growing numbers of those looking for work require an economic growth rate of at least 7pc to effectively and productively employ the one million additional entrants to the workforce every year, especially those with limited skills, simply to avoid social tension and unrest in this youth. This at a time when economic growth is languishing at less than 4pc, absorbing less than half of those seeking work.

To achieve such a rate of growth, investments in these sectors will require domestic sources since international capital flows are destined to become more volatile and less available, unless we offer high, and unsustainable, rates of return on these investments. These domestic resources will have to come from ‘public’ and private savings.

The former would be through a credible time path for bringing the fiscal deficit under control — more tax revenues and less unproductive expenditures as a percentage of GDP — to find space for financing social sector expenditures and physical infrastructure, an outcome that will require more than just higher rates of economic growth. For its success such a strategy would also require fewer dependent household members to feed.

Our population growth rate has declined gradually. The reasons range from: better rates of female and male literacy; the reduction in the child mortality rate (more surviving to supplement household earnings); improved economic conditions of households; the growing recognition or need for a second earning member of the family; women, for whom job opportunities in a host of professions have opened up, also contributing to a slight increase in the average age at which they are being married.

However, the pace of this transition has been at a slower rate than desirable for social and political stability and economic development.

There are several reasons for these outcomes. The results of our population planning programmes have at best been sketchy, partly because we have historically run these programmes through separate outlets instead of through basic health centres that provide the entire, composite range of health services. Moreover, these centres have tended to be poorly located physically and generally at relatively long distances from the health facilities providing preventive and other medical care.

But the principal impediments to population planning have been the cultural and religious resistance to checking childbirth.

These include: early marriages of females; poor spacing of births in the interest of better health of both the mother and the child to be born; women-based model of population planning, largely ignoring the male — the key decision-maker on matters of number of children; the belief that children are a gift of Allah (Who, it is believed, will then create the conditions for the needs of the child to be met, becoming His responsibility having brought the child to the world); and that any form of birth control defies the tenets of Islam.

We can learn from another Muslim country, Bangladesh, which has managed to address these beliefs (successfully employing the mullah as a partner in this effort) and succeeded in lowering its population growth rate substantially (down to 1.6pc) in a relatively short period.

The writer is a former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn December 9th , 2014