Pakistan is currently the 6th most populous country in the world and is on the verge of becoming the 5th most populous. In terms of demography, it is a ‘young country’, where 50% of its population is below the age of 20, which means that there are 235 million people in the working age group. Currently, the population in Pakistan is 33 million; it is expected to rise to an addition of 150 million people in the next two generations and an expected 275 million people by 2015 if the population trends continue to grow at the current rate. With the approaching 2015 Millennium Development Goals’ deadline, the improvements in the population dynamics of the country have been meekly encouraging but disturbing at the same time. The fertility rate has declined from 4.1 to 3.8 (a rate still higher than the South Asian average) and the use of contraceptives has increased from 30% to 35%. These were some of the statistics shared at the 14th Annual Research Conference themed “Pakistan’s Population: New Realities and Challenges for Human Development” on 20-21 November, 2013 at the NUST Institute, Islamabad. The statistics shared were a stark reminder of Pakistan’s inability to meet the Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5. A population of over 60% Pakistani population suffering from some form of food shortage, which appears endemic and simultaneously over 45% of the population with limited or no access to healthcare, there exist the indicators of a ‘silent emergencies’ as mentioned by Ms. Shehnaz Wazir Ali, President, Pakistan Population Association.
The statistics above echo Pakistan’s entrance into a demographic transitory state with its largest cohort of youth. Many demographers, statisticians and policy-makers were invited to the prestigious event to discuss how the youth population of over 100 million could prove an asset to the country and how the benefits of this could be reaped for 4-5 decades, (precisely the ‘demographic dividend’) and save the country from becoming a high octane fuel igniting repeated cycle of political and social instability (‘demographic disaster’) as explained by Dr. Ashfaq Hassan Khan, Principal, NUST Business School. With the realities shared, it appears that the present timeline is at gradient for seizing the demographic dividend, an opportunity that Pakistan will not have for the next few centuries.
While there is a decline in the fertility rate, it is still higher in rural areas (the majority), compared to many urban settings in the country. Contraceptive use is also more prevalent in the literate class of the country which forms only a minority of the country. The discussions were collectively skewed towards maximizing the human potential of the country in education and skill. This was supported by the data provided by Dr. Ashfaq Hassan Khan, Principal, NUST, where he compared the literacy rate clusters of Asian countries, including Pakistan and South Korea between the year 1966 and 2010. The data indicated that where the South Korean literacy rates had increased by 170 times, it had a literate population of 95% – in other words, it had reached universal education; whereas within the same time frame, literacy rate in Pakistan went from 15% to 56%.This investment in education by South Korea had a catalytic effect in improving capital, raising productivity, improved governance, higher economic growth and in turn national prosperity of the country.
Other recommendations by Marc-André Franche, the Country Director of UNDP, included mobilizing savings, increasing opportunities for the youth, including employment, empowering women (which would also reduce the fertility rate and increase the education rate of the future generation), stronger and responsible proactive state (where he quoted the example of China’s long-term vision of development) and finally he stressed on better and younger professionals in the state offices.
A major message of the overall event was the deep-seated need for Pakistan to focus on the development of its human resource (the ‘software’ of the country), rather than acquiring ‘hard assets’ and structures (dams and roads), which were referred to as the ‘hardware’ of the country by Federal Minister Ahsan Iqbal. He stressed that other developing countries had realized their demographic transitory opportunity and therefore made progress. He emphasized that in order to fully seize the opportunity; there is a need to create 1.5 million new jobs each year and a better performance management system. He explained the pro bono initiates the present government was taking towards it.
It was highlighted by Ashfaq Hasan Khan that 1 million youth in Pakistan are unable to find employment and thus the fiscal crisis in the country is evident. He emphasized that the demographic disaster in the country was already in the making and urged the need to focus on realigning Pakistan’s macro economy to allow economy as a whole to grow by 7-8% per annum. Although many of the challenges shared at the conference seemed daunting, many of the experts present felt that these challenges were “daunting but doable”.
The policy-makers must expand their focus from enhancing human capacity to an added social cohesiveness, which is the call of the hour. Confronting these challenges would give an enabling voice to the country.
Imtiaz Hussain Gilani, the Chairman of HEC, suggested that the reason why policy makers were unable to touch the base of where the problem in the education sector lies, is because policy makers, who traditionally make policy for the underprivileged do not belong to that class and their children are not affected by it. The affected class is the one that has to make a choice between making a living and getting educated at the end of the day. In order to make reforms that would have greater impacts, it is important that their representatives are also on board, in the words of Mr, Gilani, Chairman HEC, we “cannot have an island of excellence in the ocean of misery”.