Features | Society | South Asia

Can Pakistan Avert Demographic Doom?

While Sharif’s agenda will be filled with more immediate issues, a larger disaster is lurking.

Michael Kugelman
Can Pakistan Avert Demographic Doom?
Credit: DFID UK Department for International Development

On May 11, Pakistan’s Election Day, approximately 60 percent of eligible voters went to the polls. This figure far exceeded the 44 percent who turned out for Pakistan’s previous election in 2008. Media reports have featured moving accounts of the elderly being carried to the polls, and of women standing in the heat for hours to cast their ballots.

Yet one of the most defining features of the voting population was its youth. About a fifth of Pakistan’s 85 million registered voters were between 18 and 25 years old, with another 15 percent between the ages of 26 and 30.

Young people represent, by far, Pakistan’s largest demographic. The statistics are striking: Two thirds of the country’s approximately 180 million people are not yet 30 years old, and the median age is 21. As a percentage of the total population, only Yemen has more people under 24.

Little wonder youth were courted so aggressively on the campaign trail – from Imran Khan’s social media-fueled populist calls for change to Nawaz Sharif’s distribution of free laptops.

Projections suggest that Pakistan’s youth bulge will remain in place for decades. The 15-to-24 age bracket is expected to rise by 20 percent in the 2020s, and the under-24 population will still be in the majority come 2030. Even by 2050, the median age is expected to be just 33.

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Demographers often speak of the “dividend” that can result from this youth-heavy population. If, they argue, these kids are properly educated and incorporated into the workforce (and particularly into burgeoning high-growth sectors like IT), then Pakistan’s sputtering economy could truly take off—and perhaps, in time, even replicate the economic triumphs of India.

Unfortunately, this will be no easy feat.

Pakistan’s government – thanks in great part to the country’s powerful military, which consumes large portions of the national budget – has never invested in the education of its masses. Consider that today, more than 40 million of Pakistan’s 70 million 5-to-19-year olds are not in school.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s Planning Commission (a government advisory body) has estimated that employing the country’s nearly 100-million-strong under-20 population will require 9 percent GDP growth – a highly ambitious goal given that growth is expected to top out at only 3.6 percent for the current fiscal year, and that interminable power outages are undermining growth. The Asian Development Bank recently said that such outages will cut GDP growth by 2 percent annually.

Making matters worse is the fact that the Ministry of Youth has been abolished. Pakistan’s 18th constitutional amendment, passed in 2010, shifts numerous central-government responsibilities and resources to the provinces. The functions of many federal ministries (including youth, health, and agriculture) have effectively been turned over to already overburdened provincial authorities, who often lack the capacity to take them on. As a result, Pakistan’s youth policies are in flux.

Consequently, the country could soon face a new generation of uneducated and unemployed youth – a threat to stability in the notoriously volatile nation. Experts point to a combination of factors that could produce widespread youth radicalization in Pakistan. These include “push” factors such as socioeconomic inequality and hardline ideological narratives peddled by the media and school textbooks, and “pull” factors such as the country’s sharp demand for extremists. This strong market for militants can be attributed in part to the Pakistani security establishment’s historic sponsorship of sectarian and anti-India extremist organizations.

Pakistan’s youth bulge must be understood in the context of overall demographic growth. The nation’s population is growing at a 2 percent clip – in contrast to much of the rest of the world, where demographic growth is occurring at slower rates. Even within South Asia – one of the few regions where populations continue to expand rapidly – Pakistan has the highest population growth, birth, and fertility rates.

This growth will tax already-dwindling supplies of natural resources and basic services. Pakistan is a nation where water availability is less than 1,500 cubic meters per capita (close to the 1,000-cubic-meter scarcity threshold); about 230 people occupy every square kilometer; and nearly three acres of agricultural land are lost every 20 minutes. It is also a nation plagued by multiple public health crises, from water-borne disease to polio – and yet can muster only one doctor for every 18,000 people.

These pressures will be starkest in Pakistan’s rapidly growing cities. Today, a third of Pakistan’s population is urban-based; the figure is expected to be about 50 percent by 2025. This transition is particularly explicit in Karachi, which grew by a staggering 80 percent between 2000 and 2010 – the largest urban increase in the world.

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Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s Prime Minister-elect, will face numerous real-time crises. Yet he also faces a looming demographic threat. To mitigate this threat, his government can take several relatively simple steps – such as providing transportation subsidies to poor families to ensure their children can get to school, and offering financial support to vocational training programs (and particularly those geared toward small and medium enterprises, which employ about 75 percent of Pakistan’s non-agricultural workers).

To address urbanization, Pakistan must identify urban financing sources other than cash-strapped and overburdened municipal governments. Sharif, a businessman and champion of free-markets, would be wise to engage Pakistan’s private sector to help ease the urban transition. This can be done through implementing policies that combine microfinance, municipal bonds, and public-private partnerships.

Such efforts would give some cause for hope that Pakistan can still reap a demographic dividend, and not suffer a demographic disaster.

Michael Kugelman is the senior program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.