It was unbelievable - the solution seemed so simple. At a workshop in Bellagio, Italy a professor of economics at Princeton projected a slide that showed that Pakistan’s GDP per capita could increase by 45% in 10 years (by 2020) if the country could raise its contraception use from the current 30% to 36%.
I thought that investing in family planning would cost only a fraction of this amount, so why are we Pakistanis not seizing this opportunity? There had to be a snag somewhere. And there was. Before this could be achieved, Pakistan would need to improve health services, invest in education and vocational training of its young population, and create jobs for absorbing them into the workforce.
A week or so ago, these facts were brought up again at the launch of a book published by the Population Council and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Capturing the Demographic Dividend in Pakistan confirmed close links between population and health, education and the labour force and employment.
A “demographic dividend” is the economic boost that countries can receive when they shift from high rates of fertility and mortality to low birthrates and longer life expectancy. At the start, the women have a large number of children, many of whom die young. As health services improve, and children survive into adulthood and old age, the women start having fewer children, and slowly the birthrate declines.
Between these two moments in time, the populations increase, but the average age of the people also drops, so that you get the “youth bulge”. This period of “demographic transition” can cover two to four decades, and can temporarily result in a large proportion of young people of working age. This youth has the potential to fuel a strong economic transition, bringing as they do with their youth and enthusiasm, higher productivity, greater savings, and improved quality of life.
Once this stage is reached, the economic benefits continue for another thirty years or so, after which the youth of yesteryear reach retirement age, and the benefits begin to dwindle.
In Pakistan, the demographic transition started about two decades ago. Today, the country has reached a stage where 60% of its population of 180 million is under 30 years of age. It is urgent, therefore, that population growth is reduced, that young people are educated and trained for a vocation, and suitable jobs are created.
Special attention should be paid to providing these services and relevant facilities to the rural areas (as well as the urban) to enhance peoples’ well-being and prosperity throughout the country. However, if these steps are not taken, and the government is unable to keep pace with the needed infrastructure, healthcare and education of the burgeoning population, the result would be a further slowing of the economy, increasing joblessness and poverty with a possible backlash from frustrated (uneducated, unemployed) young people.
This can be averted. Pakistan has the example of strong economies of many Far Eastern countries (notably Japan and Korea) which were driven, at least in part, by the demographic dividend. Our country can still reap the benefits of the transition despite losing crucial years. But it has to act NOW.
Dr Shahida Zaidi, FCPS, is the president of the Association of Mothers and Newborns, Pakistan (since 2007) and was the vice president of the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics from 2006 to 2009.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2013.