ISLAMABAD, June 29: Family planning is back in fashion in the development world. But Pakistan’s unchanging fertility rates are a serious cause of concern for its future and a major hurdle to it progress, established panelists at a seminar organised by the Population Council.

The idea is not new but it has been on the back burner for the last three decades and Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world where fertility rates remain high.

“Today Pakistani population is five times as large as it was in 1950 and about 4 million people are added to it every year,” explained Dr John Bongaarts of the Population Council, New York.

“By 2050, the population in the country is expected to reach 300 million,” and that would make it the fourth largest country in the world, two positions up from the current sixth.

The idea is that supporting this unstoppable growth requires expanding production of food, water, land, power and jobs – all of which are already scarce all over the country. This reality makes family planning in Pakistan one of the most urgent causes that need immediate support and attention.

And this is why Mr John Bongaarts has come here all the way from New York to shed new light on the need to promote family planning strategies in the country.

But this is hardly new. The 70s and 80s witnessed plenty of family planning awareness campaigns and advertisements taken up in the country – and those working in the area remember how contraceptive prevalence rates rose rapidly and fertility rates went down, to sadly stagnate in the 90s and have stayed at that level since.

So, why has the area been ignored for over three decades? “This”, according to the Population Council seminar on Friday, “is a result of the discovery of the recently developed concept of ‘demographic dividend’ by economists”.

The demographic dividend is a concept that captures the economic growth that happens when fertility rates go down, because it means that a larger working population is supporting lesser dependants and saving more.

Right now, as Dr Rashid Amjad, Vice Chancellor of Pakistan Institute for Development Economics (PIDE) pointed out, one working Pakistani is carrying the burden of two, and this hinders all growth in the economy.

He further added that reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend is not possible simply by reducing fertility rates and added that investment in our youth that will compose most of the working population in addition to breaking out of current state of stagflation are necessary pre-requisites.

Big hullabaloo and very convincing arguments, but if controlling population growth is really of such sudden importance, why has it been ignored for the last three decades?

According to Dr Bongaarts, the reasons are multi-fold. Historically, after the stress on family planning in the 70s and 80s, several countries saw substantial fertility declines and economists of the world decided that it is not that serious an issue anymore and its economic benefits are not that substantial anyway. He also cited donor fatigue and a swing in interest towards the AIDS epidemic as one of the causes behind the distraction.

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