In a meeting with business leaders in Lahore in late October, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pointedly warned of the potential economic impacts of Pakistan’s rapidly growing population: “There has to be…in any plan for your own economic future, a hard look at where you’re going to get the resources to meet these needs. You do have somewhere between 170 and 180 million people. Your population is projected to be about 300 million as the current birth rates, which are among the highest in the world, continue,” she said.
Pakistan is ranked 141 (out of 182 countries) in the Human Development Index. High rates of unemployment are compounded by low levels of education and human capital. Clinton noted that Pakistani women are more vulnerable to poverty; only 40 percent are literate, compared to 68 percent of men.
The Secretary’s emphasis on the need to provide adequate education, jobs, and resources to motivate economic growth and improve well-being is welcome. But demography also has important political consequences. U.S. policymakers and the Pakistani government should consider the impact of population dynamics on the country’s intensifying instability.
As Pakistan’s population grows rapidly, it is maintaining a very young age structure: in 2005, two-thirds of its population was younger than age 30. Research by Population Action International has shown that countries with very young age structures are three times as likely to experience outbreaks of civil conflict than those with a more balanced age distribution.
The members of a “youth bulge” are not inherently dangerous, but when governments are unable to foster employment opportunities or the prospects of stability, a young age structure can serve to exacerbate the risks of conflict, as recently noted by John O. Brennan, assistant to the president for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, in a speech on “A New Approach to Safeguarding Americans.”
As Secretary Clinton and her colleagues consider the complex barriers to achieving peace and stability for Pakistan’s people, their humanitarian and development strategies should include demographic issues. When couples are able to choose the number and timing of their children, very young age structures like Pakistan’s, can change.
Family planning and reproductive health services are fundamental human rights, but remain out of reach for many in Pakistan, where one-quarter of all married women (and 31 percent of the poorest) have an unmet need for family planning.
Greater access to family planning would lower fertility rates and increase the share of working-age adults in the population. In this transition, countries can harness the “demographic dividend”–a change that could turn Pakistan’s age structure into an economic opportunity.
However, funding from the United States–the world’s largest single donor for international family planning–has declined by one-third over the past 15 years. The foreign assistance funding priorities of the Obama administration should reflect this recognition of the linkages between population, development, and stability.
By addressing the high unmet need for family planning and reproductive health services of women in countries like Pakistan, the United States could help to create a more balanced age structure in future generations–and promote stability at the same time.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a research associate at Population Action International (PAI). She is the primary author of the 2007 PAI report The Shape of Things to Come: Why Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World..