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Defusing the Bomb: Overcoming Pakistan's Population Challenge

According to UN mid-range projections for Pakistan, the country's population—currently about 185 million—will rise to 335 million by 2050. Experts examine both the challenges and opportunities of Pakistan's demographics.

Date & Time

Jun. 9, 2010
9:00am – 4:30pm ET


This event was organized by the Asia Program and Environmental Change and Security Program, and had additional co-sponsorship from the Comparative Urban Studies Project.

This conference was made possible through the generosity of the Fellowship Fund for Pakistan.

According to the UN's latest mid-range demographic projections for Pakistan, the country's population—currently about 185 million—will rise to 335 million by 2050. This explosive increase, however, represents the best-case scenario: Should fertility rates remain constant, the UN estimates this figure could approach 460 million. Such soaring population growth, coupled with youthful demographics, a dismal education system, high unemployment, and a troubled economy, pose great risks for Pakistan. Predictably, many observers depict Pakistan's population situation as a ticking time bomb.

At the same time, some demographers contend that the country's population profile can potentially bring great benefits to the country. If young Pakistanis can be properly educated and successfully absorbed into the labor force, such experts explain, then the country could experience a "demographic dividend" that boosts social well-being and sparks economic growth. On June 9, the Wilson Center's Asia Program, Environmental Change and Security Program, and Comparative Urban Studies Project, along with the Karachi-based Fellowship Fund for Pakistan, hosted a day-long conference to examine both the challenges and opportunities of Pakistan's demographics, and to discuss how best to tackle the former and maximize the latter.

In her opening address, Zeba A. Sathar of the Population Council declared that Pakistan is "at a crossroads." Demography will play a key role in determining the country's future trajectory, she said, yet there is presently little discussion about demographics in Pakistan. Sathar's presentation traced Pakistan's recent demographic trends. Despite its high population growth, Pakistan's fertility rates have actually been in decline since the early 1990s—a fact that Sathar attributed to progressively higher ages at marriage (for both men and women), but also to the "reality" of abortion. However, Pakistan's pace of fertility decline has slowed in the last few years—a consequence, Sathar argued, of Islamabad's failure to promote social development (particularly education) and of the international donor community's prioritizing of HIV/AIDS funding over that of family planning since 2000. Sathar concluded that achieving Pakistan's "demographic dreams" will require more educational and employment opportunities (particularly for women) and better access to family planning in rural areas.

In the following panel, Wilson Center Senior Scholar Shahid Javed Burki noted the long-standing failure of demographers and economists in Pakistan to work together on the country's population issues. This failure, Burki asserted, has resulted in poor choices and bad policy. He also criticized officials and scholars for being reactive in their population proposals, rather than proactive. Burki emphasized that good policy choices can produce favorable results. If, for instance, the population policies launched in Pakistan's early decades had been sustained to the present, the country today would have 30 million fewer people. Similarly, had Pakistan followed the Bangladeshi approach and concentrated on the economic empowerment of women, today there would be more than 40 million fewer Pakistanis. Good policies matter, Burki repeatedly asserted, and Pakistan's large and growing population, if dealt with wisely, can be an asset rather than a burden.

Like Burki, Yasmeen Sabeeh Qazi of the Packard Foundation pointed to Bangladesh as a relative success story. She highlighted Bangladesh's reproductive health services system, which has served to increase the health of Bangladeshis and reduce their poverty. Indonesia and Iran, whose fertility rates are one-half Pakistan's, provide other examples in the Muslim world where official policy has made a significant difference. Qazi's presentation emphasized the linkages between family planning, reproductive health, and development. Noting that one-third of pregnancies in Pakistan are unplanned, she underscored the correlation between smaller family size and higher gross national income. She urged the government to fashion a population policy that expands access to reproductive health services, strengthens the health system generally, promotes education (especially for girls), and creates more jobs.

Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace examined the prospects for radicalization of Pakistan's youth. Pakistan's stratified education system, Yusuf cautioned, is not training productive, employable members of society. Only graduates of elite private schools or of foreign schools are prepared for the economy of the 21st century. Meanwhile, the economy is not producing the quality jobs the young expect, leading to an "expectation-reality disconnect" that fosters not only un- or underemployment, but also anger and alienation. Moreover, the state, by deliberately cultivating the ultra-right elements in Pakistani society who most want to radicalize the country's youth, is part of the problem. Still, Yusuf added, echoing the hopefulness of other speakers, it is not too late. These disturbing trends can be reversed, with help from outside friends like the United States, which, Yusuf counseled, should focus on assisting Pakistan's education system, support rural private schools, and allow more Pakistani students to study in the United States.

Saba Gul Khattak focused her luncheon address on the work of the Pakistan government's Planning Commission, of which she is a member. In recent years, Pakistan's population programs have been devolved from the federal to the provincial and sub-provincial levels. This decentralization, she averred, has opened the way for a genuine reform agenda. But it has also contributed to a situation where no one at the federal level feels any "ownership" over the country's population programs. Implementation has always been the most vulnerable point in the policy process—and the lack of "ownership" only accentuates this problem today. Khattak emphasized the linkages between population, health, education, and development. Today, she asserted, children are seen by their parents as a source of old age security. Only when the government fills this void through the establishment of an effective social security structure will Pakistan be able to reduce its fertility rates. Development must accompany a truly effective population program.

In the afternoon panel, Sohail Agha of Population Services International discussed the role of the private sector in family planning in Pakistan. He argued that this sector has made a "substantial contribution" to Pakistan's increased use of condoms: In 2006-07, a period when condom use spiked by nearly 8 percent, about 80 percent of this increase was covered by contraceptives provided by the private sector. Additionally, he noted that a 2009 survey found that urban Pakistanis exposed to social marketing campaigns about condom utilization increased their use of the contraceptive by 10 percent. Furthermore, he described private-sector-led health financing plans for women's fertilization—a method of contraception that, like condoms, has increased over the last 30 years in Pakistan.

Shazia Khawar of the British Council discussed the "Next Generation" report, a 2009 Council study about Pakistan's youth. The report, based on a survey of 1,500 young people across both rural and urban Pakistan, concludes that young Pakistanis are deeply disillusioned about their country and its institutions, with three-quarters of those surveyed saying they regard themselves as "primarily" Muslims, not Pakistanis. The report's "critical point," said Khawar, is that Pakistani youth participation in policy development is nonexistent. To this end, the British Council has spearheaded several initiatives to engage the country's youth in Pakistani politics and to spark dialogue between young Pakistanis and policymakers. Khawar concluded, however, that success is possible only if Pakistan's top political leaders "pledge themselves to this agenda."

Mehtab S. Karim of the Pew Research Center offered a comparative perspective, discussing demographics in the broader Muslim world, with particular emphasis on Bangladesh and Iran. Why, he asked, has Pakistan experienced less fertility decline than most of its fellow Muslim-majority nations? He suggested that the answer lies in the failure of Pakistan's political and religious leaders to make early and sustained commitments to family planning. In Bangladesh, he explained, the country's very first government made lower population growth rates a "prime goal." And in Iran, spiritual leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa in support of contraceptive use soon after the Islamic Revolution. Yet in Pakistan, according to Karim, religious figures have consistently opposed Islamabad's family planning efforts, and the government has proven unwilling or unable to combat this resistance.

Scott Radloff of USAID discussed his agency's family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH) projects in Pakistan. FP/RH aid to Pakistan was largely cut off during much of the 1990s due to the Pressler Amendment—a 1985 modification to the U.S. Foreign Assistance Act that banned most U.S. military and economic assistance to Pakistan unless the U.S. president certified that Pakistan had no nuclear weapons. President George W. Bush waived this prohibition in 2001, and since then USAID FP/RH assistance has risen to nearly $45 million. Current interventions focus on strengthening services within Pakistan's Ministry of Health and Ministry of Population Welfare; improving contraceptive supplies and logistics; expanding community-based services; and increasing awareness and commitment, including among religious leaders.

Participants concurred that Pakistan's demographic situation is fraught with risk. Yet they also highlighted a series of hopeful signs. Yusuf noted the absence of an "imminent" danger of youth radicalization; Khawar pointed to the testimonies of "many young leaders determined to do their part" that flow from the "Next Generation" report; and both Karim and Qazi cited Bangladesh and Iran as proof that successful family planning programs are possible even in countries marked by deep poverty or conservative Islam. The presenters were also in accord about the necessary policies moving forward: more extensive family planning and reproductive health services, better education, and more job opportunities (particularly for women). At the same time, speakers repeatedly underscored the profound challenges facing the implementation of such policies. Still, for all the talk about major obstacles and challenges, there was recognition that more modest and simple steps can be taken as well—such as promoting more discussion about demographics within Pakistan, and especially among experts from different disciplines.

Drafted by Michael Kugelman and Robert M. Hathaway.

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Hosted By

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Urban Sustainability Laboratory

Since 1991, the Urban Sustainability Laboratory has advanced solutions to urban challenges—such as poverty, exclusion, insecurity, and environmental degradation—by promoting evidence-based research to support sustainable, equitable and peaceful cities.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

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