Making the numbers count | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 05, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 05, 2016

Making the numbers count

What should be the angle of my piece?” I asked myself. “Should I justify the relevance of population dynamics for development, or present the current state of affairs of population dynamics? Playing these questions in mind several times, I decided to do both, because my readings of many literatures gave me that direction. Moreover, the relationship between population dynamics and the development priorities is constantly changing as the development process roles forward through time. Population and development are composite concepts by nature and population issues do not exist in isolation. People in a society are both producers as well as consumers.

The Global Leadership Meeting (took place in Dhaka in 2013) engaged in a thematic consultation on population dynamics and the Post-2015 development agenda. The meeting recognised linkages between population dynamics and development challenges and opportunities, and their implications for development strategies, goals and policies. The leaders noted that mega population trends—population growth, migration, urbanisation and population ageing—constitute important development challenges.

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In the Concept Note of the Global Leadership Meeting on Population Dynamics, it was clearly stated that "population dynamics affect economic, development, employment, income distribution, poverty, social protection and pensions. Population dynamics affect efforts to ensure universal access to health, education, housing, sanitation, water, food and energy. It also influences the sustainability of cities and rural areas, environmental conditions and climate change. These linkages influence, and are influenced by, the realisation of human rights and gender equality".

The leaders thus declared (Dhaka Declaration 2013) their commitment to address and integrate population dynamics into the Post-2015 development agenda, since people lie at the centre of the development process, causing changes and being changed by those changes. Therefore, any development process should consider the demographics of population, i.e., its structure, composition, distribution, behaviour pattern, attitude, values, norms, beliefs, practices and the whole life-style pattern. The number of people, the speed of growth, the quality of life, the pressures on them, etc. are influenced by environmental, economic, political and social conditions. This is not a one way process. People influence these conditions by the decisions they take.

Mega population trends in Bangladesh is characterised by a large population with high density and a built in population momentum; declining fertility with regional variations and considerable contraceptive discontinuation; reduction in maternal & child mortality with biasness towards urban, educated and rich; a growing elderly population with a broken link; and rapid urban growth with growing urban poverty, vulnerability and exclusion.

Population growth trends in Bangladesh show that Bangladesh is well into third phase of demographic transition, having shifted from a high mortality-high fertility regime to a low mortality-low fertility one. As a result of declining population growth and consequent changes in age structure, the proportion of working-age population increases, offering a window of opportunity, referred to as the 'demographic dividend'.

This demographic dividend offers an opportunity for potential economic benefit, when there is an increase in working age population and an associated decline in the dependent population. An increasing proportion of working-age individuals in a population enhance overall productivity, with improved skill level of the workers contributing to it. However, it is worth noting that demographic dividend is a time specific window of opportunity, and is not going to last forever. It is a transitory phenomenon— a 'window of opportunity.

The 'demographic dividend' leads to opportunities for growth in output per capita in two principal ways. One, there is an age-structure impact on total GDP due to increasing proportion of working-age group in total population, increasing the ratio of producers to consumers. Two, there are “behavioural effects” of changing age structure. An increasing proportion of working-age individuals in a population enhance overall productivity, with improved skill level of the workers contributing to it. There are changes in aggregate saving and consumption following the life cycle pattern. Increase in savings can make capital more available and thus relatively cheaper. 

Another behavioural effect can arise from the changing attitudes to the status of females, leading to increased female enrolment and consequently more educated females in the labour force.  The sum total of all these behavioural effects has the potential to further increase per capita output.

Although the demographic transition creates the demographic dividend, it also brings significant challenges with it. Among these are the areas of education, health, nutrition, ageing, inequality, housing, food, social and political unrest, status of women, and employment. If appropriate policies are not formulated demographic dividend might be a cost, leading to unemployment and an unbearable strain on education, health and old age security. What needs to be emphasised here is that economic gains from demographic dividend are not certain, as the term might misleadingly imply. Economic returns are not solely function of demographic dividend.

The potential gains from the "demographic dividend" will be at risk due to continuing poverty and poor living standards. Particularly, poor families loose out since they are neither able to take full advantage of smaller completed families because of inability to invest in children, nor able to compensate for the reduction in children's contribution to their present and future consumption because of the absence of well developed institutions that provide old age security and assurance against income erosion.

Three interconnected mechanisms responsible for demographic dividend resulting in economic return: Labour Supply, Savings, and Human Capital. All these mechanisms, however, depend on the external and internal economic settings and policy environment of the country. Health and education can only improve, if there is a provision for quality health and education. Savings can only increase if people have access to acceptable savings mechanisms and have confidence in the domestic financial markets.

With this window of opportunity available, I would like to repeat the question to myself that “Could we be Able to Reap the Benefit out of it?” I do not doubt our abilities, rather I am concerned about putting right things into right places. However, there is no harm assessing the situation. I would like to concentrate on two aspects of the age structural change that really opens the window of opportunity – one is population movement; and the other one is labour force supply, or shortfall of it.

When a population (of Bangladesh) has a large proportion (more than 65%) of economically active labour force (aged 15-59 years), it is quite natural that people will move from one place to another for education, employment, training, investment, and so on. if the national resources or facilities are not adequate enough to meet the needs, people look for alternative options. These options could be crossing of an administrative boundaries nationally, political boundaries internationally, crossing of occupational or sectoral boundaries.

The movements of these types are conceived as a net positive gain for both origin and destination places in terms of investments, remittances, knowledge and skills transfers, human development, etc. The remittance sent by the Bangladeshi migrant workers played and is still playing a significant role in reducing poverty. From this, it clear that migrants are development agents.

But migration also involves trade-offs and costs to migrants, their families and societies. It can generate new inequalities and vulnerabilities, especially when access to migration opportunities is highly uneven and when migration is forced. Sometimes, these create barriers for regular migratory movements and people fall into traps of deception, fraudulence, exploitation and abuse. Therefore, initiatives should be taken nationally, regionally and globally to mitigate problems associated with migratory movements and make migration safe and protected.

If migration becomes too expensive for reasons such as exorbitant cost, restricted access, political or religious ethnocentricity, etc., the strategy of outsourcing opens up a better option for Bangladesh. It is a growing industry spreading around the world. The process has started in Bangladesh as private initiative. If we really want to reap the benefit of the demographic dividend, this option can provide an independent strategy for development. The government can facilitate the speedy growth of this industry.

The availability of more producers than consumers is the flagship feature of demographic dividend. So far, we have discussed on the positive side of the window of opportunity. However, discussion on the negative side is also important. We mentioned earlier that demographic dividend is a time specific window of opportunity, and is not going to last forever.

During the third phase of demographic transition, the population bulge moves out of the working age group and enters the old age category. The gap between the rates of growth in the working age population and total population is now reversed resulting in a decline in the working age ratio.

Older people are the fastest growing segment of the population worldwide. The 21st century will witness such a rapid pace that it could be considered as the century of ageing. For the first time in the history of humankind, there will be more older persons than that of children aged 0-14 years in the world. In 1950, there were about 200 million people aged 60 years or over in the world. This number is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2025 and it may shoot up to 2 billion by 2050. The most rapid of this increase is taking place in the developing countries and posing major challenges to health and wellbeing of the people. It affects directly on relationships within families, equity across generations, lifestyles, and the family solidarity.

In Bangladesh, the number of 60 years and plus people projected to increase up to from about 9.77 million (6.5% of total population) in 2011 to 44.10 million (20.2%) by 2051. Bangladesh is one of the twenty developing countries with largest number of elderly population. By 2025 Bangladesh along with four other Asian countries, will account for about half of the world's total elderly population. The projection suggests that by 2025 one in 10 persons will be elderly and by 2050 one in five persons will be elderly. There will be fewer persons in the younger generations to support and care for the growing number of the elderly in the family.

Even the current figure of 6.5% has many implications. First, 6.5% is not only a 6.5%, it is also a 10 million living beings. Second, the average size of the households has decreased from 5.6 in 1974 to 4.4 in 2011.  Third, community and social protection network for the people who are unable to engage fully in the productive economy has also reduced to a minimum.

Older persons are often negatively perceived and these perceptions often leave older persons marginalised, neglected and abused, particularly the poor ones. Elderly population in Bangladesh will face many difficulties in managing the challenges such as poverty, changing family structure, social and cultural norms, and inadequate health care facilities for the elderly population. For the poor, old age is a curse, and it is worse to be an old woman than an old man due to social and economic marginalisation.

The significance of ageing can best be viewed in the context of the simultaneous, gradual breakdown of the traditional family values, increasing life expectancy, declining birth rates both internal and external migration by younger men and women, inadequate or slowly developing public services and wide-spread poverty in the developing world, which affect older men and women.

Mega population trends in Bangladesh suggest, among other things such as arresting population momentum, reducing gender inequality, managing urban growth, investing in young people, ensuring food security, eliminating poverty, vulnerability and exclusion, that through age structural transition a window of opportunity has created a situation where Bangladesh can boost up its development in a galloping pace. At the same time, the available time is short as it comes only once in a population life time. The duration of the demographic dividend is normally of 30-35 years. But if the pace of decline in population growth rate is rapid, the span of demographic dividend becomes shorter. A recent study conducted jointly by UNFPA and General Economic Division of Planning Ministry shows that Bangladesh may only get 25 years. Therefore, it is time to act now, and time to act fast if we want to see Bangladesh a developed country by 2041.


The writer is Vice-Chancellor, Begum Rokeya University, Rangpur

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