Next week, on June 9th, the Asia Program and the Environmental Change and Security Program at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. are hosting a one-day conference called, Defusing the Bomb: Overcoming Pakistan’s Population Challenge [click here for speaker/event info and to RSVP]. Below, Michael Kugelman, the Program Associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Asia Program delves into this topic and why Pakistan’s population problem is not just a bomb waiting to go off:
The projections are staggering: 335 million people by 2050, with more than 80 million to be added in just the next 20 years. And if current fertility rates remain constant, there could be nearly 460 million people in Pakistan by 2050.
The combination of soaring population growth, youthful demographics (two-thirds of the country is less than 30 years old), a deeply troubled education system, high unemployment, and poor economic performance poses major risks for Pakistan today and in the decades ahead.
Predictably, debates about Pakistan’s demographics often assume the worst. There is talk of the country’s nonrenewable resources being exhausted by mass demand; of an already-overburdened healthcare system collapsing under the strain of too many sick and infirm; and of millions of poor, unemployed youth succumbing to militancy. Invariably, such debates invoke the “population bomb” metaphor . The unstated assumption is that the fuse has already been lit, that this bomb will definitely be exploding, and that we had all better watch out.
However, this assumption is rarely contested—which is a surprise, given that with sufficient time, tools, and access, any bomb can be defused. And demographers are now starting to believe that Pakistan’s population bomb may indeed be defusable.
The message emerging from population experts is this: If Pakistan’s young population can be sufficiently educated and successfully integrated into the labor force, then the country could attain a “demographic dividend” that produces widespread social well-being and economic growth.
When confronted with the charge that such a message represents pure starry-eyed idealism, demographers offer this response: A country’s age structure really can help determine economic success. When the majority of a population is of working age, the population produces more than it consumes, while a minority of the population (consisting of non-working dependent children and the elderly) consumes more than it produces. As a result, fewer investments are needed to meet the needs of dependent age groups, and resources can be released for economic development and family welfare. On a more tangible level, this would mean that Pakistan’s key sectors—from textiles and IT to retail and construction—would enjoy an immense infusion of labor.
To be sure, attaining such an outcome will be an enormous challenge in Pakistan. Not only will birth rates need to fall, but education and economic conditions will need to be sound enough for droves of young people to be absorbed into the workforce. In a nation where less than 30 out of 70 million children between ages 5 and 19 attend school, and where GDP growth has plummeted below 3 percent in the last year or so, “challenge” may be an understatement.
Still, all is not lost. Population experts estimate that Pakistan has a “demographic window” measuring not in days or weeks, but years—30 to 40 of them. The country therefore has several decades to pass the necessary reforms and to institute the requisite policies to turn Pakistan’s demographic situation into an opportunity and eventually a boon.
So even while acknowledging the great magnitude of Pakistan’s population challenge, it is equally important to recognize that the country’s demographic situation is not all about doomsday scenarios. In much of the international media, as well as in Washington policy debates, there is a frequent tendency to see only the bad in Pakistan—to fixate on the worst-case and to ignore the positives, whether actual or potential.
In an effort to move beyond this reductive optic, the Woodrow Wilson Center will be hosting a conference on June 9 [see her for event information] that examines Pakistan’s demographics not from a when-does-the-bomb-explode angle, but instead from a what-if-any-steps-can-be-taken-to-put-the-bomb-out perspective. The event will examine the salient challenges—youth radicalization, reproductive health, educational deficiencies, and economic problems—but will also consider what strategies can realistically be implemented to tackle the challenges.
Pakistan’s demographic realities are indeed gloomy, and the figures alarming. Yet instead of simply provoking fear and resignation, they can also serve as a wake-up call. And for this to happen, Pakistan’s population situation must be recognized for what it is: a challenge that is considerable, yet by no means insurmountable.
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