Defusing the Bomb: Overcoming Pakistan's Population Challenge

You're Invited: June 09, 2010

Jun 04, 2010

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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.

There is talk of exhaustion of nonrenewable resources; of an already-overburdened healthcare system collapsing; and of millions of poor, unemployed youth succumbing to militancy. These discussions invariably invoke the "population bomb" metaphor. The unstated assumption is that the fuse has been lit, the bomb will explode, and we had all better watch out.

It is surprising that this assumption has rarely been contested: 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, through developments such as greater education and better integration into the labor force. If done, Pakistan may even benefit from a "demographic dividend" that produces widespread social well-being and economic growth.

Those of working age, while working, produce more than they consume. When the majority of a population is of working age, fewer investments are needed to meet the needs of dependent age groups, and more resources are available for economic development and improved quality of life.

To be sure, attaining such an outcome will be an enormous challenge in Pakistan, requiring sound education and economic conditions to prepare and accommodate the droves of young people seeking 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 recently plummeted below 3 percent, "challenge" may even 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. It has several decades to pass the necessary reforms and institute the requisite policies to turn Pakistan's demographic situation from a burden into a boon.

While acknowledging the magnitude of Pakistan's population challenge, it important to recognize that the country's demographic scenarios do not all spell doom. In an effort to move beyond this reductive optic, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Asia Program and Environmental Change and Security Program will be hosting a conference on June 9 examining not a when-does-the-bomb-explode scenario, but instead one of what-if-any-steps-can-be-taken-to-put-the-bomb-out. The event will examine the salient challenges--youth radicalization, reproductive health, educational deficiencies, and economic problems--and the strategies that can realistically be implemented to tackle them.

Adapted from the original article by the Wilson Center's Michael Kugelman, appearing on Changing Up Pakistan.

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