Pakistan and the rising global population

Dr Izza Aftab
Thursday, Jul 14, 2022

Just as we were getting used to the fact that there are seven billion people in the world, the latest World Population Prospects report asks for a minor addition. In November of this year, there will be a resounding eight billion people in the world!

If things keep progressing the way they are, by the middle of the century we will be 9.7 and by the end of this century, we will be over 10 billion strong. The more punctilious reader will have discerned that the global population is growing, albeit at a decreasing rate.

So how does the population grow? Higher life expectancy at birth and higher fertility rate combined together lead to a growing population. We are living longer than we have ever before. The global average life expectancy is close to 73 years; it is 67 years in Pakistan. Other established patterns hold true as well – women continue to live longer than men. Fertility rate refers to the average number of children birthed by a woman. The global average fertility rate is a little over two children per woman; it is closer to three and a half children per woman in Pakistan. Population only really drops when fertility rates decline.

Should we be able to reduce the global population if countries like Pakistan and Ethiopia would have a fertility rate that matches the global average? Not really. Even if that were to happen, countries like Pakistan, which have a youth bulge, will continue to experience population growth. That is another way of saying population increases due to an excess of births over deaths. But there is another way of calibrating population – immigration. According to the WPP report, Pakistan was the leading country from where 16.5 million people emigrated in search of work. For those of us who take pride in robust worker remittances, please note that more Pakistanis than any other nationality have left their country in search of decent work. Fewer people have left conflict-ridden Syria, Venezuela and Myanmar, combined.

In the business-as-usual scenario, eight countries alone will account for half the increase in population between now and 2050. Pakistan is one of those. By 2050, Pakistan will still be the fifth largest country by size with around 366 million people. Imagine a day, less than 30 years from now, when there are 132 million more of us – in a country which is one of the most rapidly urbanizing globally. This means less food to go around, less potable water, higher demands on our social systems. It also means Pakistan will have more voters in 30 years than it ever has. Interesting times as the country will ring in its centennial.

Luckily for Pakistan, it is in a good stage right now – the stage of a demographic dividend where you have more people of working age, between 25 and 64 years, than you have children and the elderly. So what can we do to avoid the doomsday scenario of too many in Pakistan fighting over a declining pie?

There has to be a shift towards enhancing human capital. This seems impossible today when the country teeters dangerously close to an international default and the political uncertainty has reached dizzying heights. But bear with me. A little introspection tells us that the only asset that Pakistan can really and actually count on is its people. Not a power plant, foreign ally nor a road network. Seventy-five years have gone by and Pakistan is short of a half, is a nuclear power, yet over 20 per cent of the population lives in poverty. The contradictions cannot continue to exist without threatening the fabric that holds the country together. Pakistan has imported policies for decades now. It might serve the purpose to pivot and focus on Pakistanis for a change. So how do we do it?

Improve the quality of education before increasing access. You will see an increase in the latter when the former improves. Quality of education is improved if it is entrusted to people whose job it is to understand the science of education and not by labeling a failed reform riding on a wave of political compromise as the change we have all been waiting for. Quality education does not automatically translate into distance from religion. Equally, religious education alone does not mean quality education. Couple the supply side solution with improving the social attitude towards education. Link up with industry, entrepreneurs and people who study the future of work to determine what quality education actually entails.

Second, improve access and quality of healthcare. This will help reduce the adolescent birth rate as well which is very high in Pakistan. Provinces need to seriously reconsider how health is financed. Moreover, public health insurance needs to continue and be scaled up. Health is not a privilege, it is a right and should be treated as such. The number of practising physicians in Pakistan is abysmal. If you need a statistic more frightening than this one, look up the number of dentists in Pakistan.

Third, and this cannot be stressed enough, norms and attitudes towards women in Pakistan need a major revision. Women are more than mothers or mothers-to-be. Women have the same capabilities to contribute meaningfully to families, work and society. Treating them as less than is not just to the country’s detriment, it is just really bad economics. Women are almost half the population of Pakistan yet their participation in the labour force is insignificant. They continue supplying ample labour in low-paying dead end jobs.

Systematically, women in Pakistan have very little agency whether we look at their role in decision making in families, control over their bodies or owning assets. Approving a law here and there is no longer enough. The government can take the lead – at the federal and provincial levels – by having an equal number of men and women in cabinets. That ought to send a signal. A good one, irrespective of which political party is in power.

So while the population continues to grow globally and in Pakistan, there is still time to prepare. In a couple of decades, there will be a lot more of us. This does not mean they and we have to live poorer and more deprived lives. If we get our priorities right, we can be on the right side of history – for a change.

The writer is a faculty member at Beaconhouse National University, Lahore. She tweets @izzaaftab