In an interview published yesterday, Dr Mehtab Karim, one of Pakistan’s handful of demographers said something rather alarming. He said: Pakistan is perhaps the only country where there is no centre of demographic studies at any of its universities, whereas in India, each state has at least one university that has a centre of demographic studies while Bangladesh also has many. (See Brief Recording April 1, 2019)
Dr Mehtab added this country does not have training programme for demographers. “How will Pakistan deal with its demographic issues ten years later, I don’t know,” he said. This is a serious concern that Pakistani economists are only beginning to understand.
When Dr Hafiz Pasha, the noted economist, wrote his recent book on Pakistan economy (titled Growth & Inequality Voe-1), his first chapter focused on population. Pasha’s decision to talk about quality and quantity of demographics as the first step towards his analyses of Pakistan’s economy was a rare and refreshing departure from the past. As Dr Mehtab recalled in his interview, Pakistan’s government institutions like the Planning Commission have been historically dominated by macroeconomists who didn’t understand the importance of demographics, and how unskilled population is a factor in retarding economic growth.
Now there is some realisation among economists that population and other aspects of demography matter. The question is who is going to push for reforms in this domain. Exports, taxation, FDI, power outages occupy the majority of governments’ time and resources; whether they succeed or not is another matter. The sitting government has this added fascination with corruption whereas the visions of Pakistan’s visionary businessmen are limited to World Bank’s Doing Business agenda.
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Businesses, whether led by associations, chambers or even the latest apple of the eye Pakistan Business Council, have not placed population reduction on the reform agenda list to be demanded by federal or provincial governments. Perhaps because it is not in the short-term interest of Pakistani businesses to have less population. They would rather have a large market and cheap supply of abundant labour. But they are forgetting that in the long run this will come to haunt them: businesses will eventually need skilled and educated labour if they are to take part and succeed in new economic era, instead of being comfortable with slow growth traditional sectors like textile and leather.
On the other hand, businesses also need to understand that while big market in terms of size may be good, it’s of little use if that market has very little purchasing power. Recognising the importance of demographic studies, some private sector American foundations, like Ford Foundation or Rockefeller Foundation, have funded research on these affairs.
In Pakistan’s state and private sector such visionary thinking is in short supply. Failure to focus on population means that the country may soon find itself seriously short of demographic experts accompanying the growing dearth of economists. Issues relating to ‘Doing Business’ would be child’s play compared meta level issues in quantity and quality of population that very few seem to be thinking about.