Population and Pakistan’s development

Population and Pakistan’s development

Shahid Javed Burki May 31, 2021
The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The world is going through a serious demographic change that was predicted but not to the extent it is actually happening. These changes will have a number of important consequences; some positive, the other negative. The world population is expected to increase from 7.8 billion in 2020 to 9.9 billion by 2050. The current global total fertility rate is 2.3 births per woman. However, 91 countries have registered fertility levels below 2.1 which is the population replacement level. This means that these countries have entered the phase of population decline. The United States, most of Europe, and China now have declining populations.

In late April, the American Census Bureau began to release basic information from the population count conducted in 2020. The numbers confirmed what demographers have been warning for years. The US along with China and most of the countries in Europe is undergoing “demographic stagnation”. These countries are transitioning from relatively fast-growing nations of young people to slow growing countries of older people. As Farhad Manjoo wrote in his column for The New York Times, “Demographic transition could bring its own costs, among them a steady reduction in dynamism, productivity and slowdown in national and individual prosperity.” For the US and China this transition could mean a diminishment of global power.

The United States Census Bureau predicts that sometime in the next decade, Americans over 65 will outnumber those younger than 18 for the first time in the country’s history. America will cross the 400-million population mark sometime in late 20-50s. By that time about half of Americans will be over the age of 45 years, and one-fifth will be older than 85. An aging and declining population could be catastrophic for the countries that are heading towards that situation. In a recent paper, Chad Jones, an economist at Stanford University, argues that a global population decline could reduce the fundamental innovativeness of mankind. If increased births are not a feasible option, the only other way is to bring in more people from the outside. In a recent report authored by Ali Noorani, the chief executive of the National Immigration Forum, and his coauthor Danilo Zak suggest that increasing legal migration by slightly more than a third each year would keep America’s ratio of working young people to old people stable over the next half century. Those who should be brought in should come from the countries that have large surpluses of people to export and have the skills — or can be given the skills — that countries such the US and China need. This is where Pakistan enters the picture. To paint it I will present some vital population statistics about Pakistan.

Demography is one reason for rethinking Pakistan’s economic priorities. The country stands out in the world that is now witnessing rapidly declining birth rates. There are now 14 countries that have more than 100 million people each. Pakistan, with 220 million people in 2021, is the fifth largest. Of the 14 largest, Pakistan, with a population growth rate of 2% a year, has the third highest growth rate. Only Nigeria and Ethiopia, both at 2.6% a year rate of population increase, have higher growth rates. A birth rate sustained at this level over a period of time means a very young population. World’s median population is 30.6 years which means that one-half of the population is below that age. Pakistan’s median age is only 23.8 years or 78% of the global average. The Pakistani population is very young.

How does the Pakistani demographic situation compare with that of some of the more populated countries? Three of the 10 largest countries in terms of the size of their population are in South Asia. Pakistan, with an estimated increase of 2% a year, is seeing its population growing at a rate twice as high as those of Bangladesh and India. That notwithstanding, the country, at 287 people per square kilometre, is the least densely populated of the three. Bangladesh has the highest density with 1,265 persons per square kilometre. The Indian density with 464 persons is considerably higher than that of Pakistan.

Of the 10 largest countries, six are net exporters of people. India with net outmigration of 533,000 people in 2020 is the largest exporter followed by Bangladesh at 370,000 and Pakistan at 233,000. These numbers translated in terms of the proportion of the population tell a different story. Bangladesh is exporting 0.2% of its population, twice as high as Pakistan’s 0.1%. India sends abroad out only 0.04% of its population. A very large proportion of South Asian outmigration is to the oil exporting countries in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, with a population of 35 million, brings in 2.2 million people from the outside, mostly from South Asia and Egypt. United Arab Emirates, with a population of 10 million, has 84,000 foreigners being added every year. The US imports 955,000 people a year while four other English-speaking countries — the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand — also have large number of people moving in. Canada brings in 242,000 immigrants a year, Australia 158,000 and New Zealand 15,000.

These numbers mean that for Pakistan such a large and young population could become either a burden or an asset. To be the latter, public policy must be designed in a way that the youth could add to the country’s economic strength. The youth’s involvement in two sectors can produce this result. One is the development of information technology. The other is the development of small and medium enterprises that could enter global supply chains. Both need educated and well-trained workforces. Pakistan needs to invest in developing institutions both in the public and private sectors designed to produce such worker streams. Pakistan is in a position to take advantage of the developing demographic situation in the US.

Although the history of South Asian migration to the US is not as long and intense as that of the Chinese, the Sub-continent has one of the fastest growing population groups in the country. The number of South Asians in the country has increased from 2.2 million in 2000 to 4.9 million in 2015. In the six years since then, another 1.4 million South Asians came in, bringing the total to 6.3 million. The Indians have 70% of the South Asian migrants in the US. Pakistanis, with 700,000 people, has the second largest South Asian group. Those from Bangladesh number 182,000. South Asians including Pakistanis have high concentrations in the coastal cities of America; on the East and West coasts as well as on the coastal states in the country’s south.

It is important for the Pakistani policymakers to work with those already living in the US to develop a working plan to facilitate the migration of Pakistanis to the US. The Pakistani diaspora could help out in making the Pakistani youth major contributors to the county’s growth.



Published in The Express Tribune, May 31st, 2021.

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