FeaturedVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 23

Breaking out of stagflation

Pakistan’s population is projected to be more than 400 million by 2050, which will put huge pressure on its social sectors to provide health, education, housing and other fundamental rights to people. Pakistan, which already faces longstanding issues, will have to take urgent measures to check the population to avoid compounding its problems.

According to UNICEF, five million babies are expected to be born in Pakistan in nine months since the Covid-19 outbreak. It will choke health facilities in the country, which are already short of space for patients after the onset of the pandemic. The situation will increase the maternal mortality rate to 140 deaths per 100,000 live births and the infant mortality rate (IMR) to 52.30 per 1,000 live births, which are already very high in Pakistan. In the global context, Pakistan is ranked 61st in the maternal mortality rate and 20th in the infant mortality rate.

Pakistan faces a long recessionary phase, bankruptcies, massive job losses and rising poverty after the onset of the coronavirus. It will need massive resources to rebuild its economy, revive businesses, create jobs and improve social safety nets in years to come. The task becomes more difficult in the wake of a large population, which is growing at a rate of 2.4pc. The smartest way for Pakistan to resolve its longstanding issues is to check the population growth.

According to a recent report by the Population Council, a cut in the population growth could be the most cost-effective and expeditious intervention to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for Pakistan. “Increased investment in family planning programmes could accelerate Pakistan’s progress across social, economic and environmental areas of sustainable development,” it said. In February 2015, the Pakistan government adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a unanimous parliamentary resolution. The strategic shift put considerable responsibility on the government and its development partners to address the unmet agenda of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), while initiating the SDGs through development cooperation for strengthening public institutions, social policies and planning development programmes.

The Covid-19 outbreak is creating significant additional pressure on an already overburdened healthcare system, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of affected populations. Experts say the pandemic poses a huge challenge to the government and people of Pakistan and the most cost-effective and expeditious way to meet it is to slow the population growth. It can help the country achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to attain universal healthcare and education standards and pull people out of poverty.

The devastation caused by the pandemic is a rude reminder to countries, like Pakistan, which have neglected social sector investments, particularly health and education. Pakistan’s ranking on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) stood last year at 152 out of 189 countries — 13pc below the average HDI of South Asia, including Bangladesh and India. India is ranked 129. Pakistan spends only 1.12pc of GDP on health, well below the minimum required average of 4pc.

The current pace of the population growth at 2.4pc directly hampers Pakistan’s efforts to meet 12 out of 17 SDGs. “In Pakistan, every $1 spent on contraceptive services saves $2.50 in maternal and newborn healthcare. By investing in robust family planning programmes, Pakistan can significantly pull more people out of poverty by improving maternal and infant survival, nutrition, educational attainment and the status of girls and women. The rapid population growth, therefore, is one of the biggest challenges confronting Pakistan that impedes achieving Sustainable Development Goals in the country,” the Population Council report observed.

Explaining the impact of the rapid population growth, the report reveals that Pakistan ranks 78th out of 113 countries on the Global Food Security Index (2019). One out of three children is out of school in Pakistan. Its population is growing so fast that it can’t achieve Universal Primary Education until 2075. It is one of the third most water-stressed countries in the world. Per capita water availability in Pakistan has dropped from 5,600 cubic meters at the time of independence to the current level of 861 cubic meters and it is projected to decline further.

If the contraceptive prevalence rate rises from the current 34pc to 54pc, it can save 4,900 mothers and 140,000 infants from dying every year. If Pakistan is closer to the fertility levels of the rest of the region i.e. 2.1pc, a total of 40 million fewer Pakistanis would be living in poverty and only 1.6 million children would be out of school. To harness its demographic dividends, Pakistan will need to break out of stagflation and venture into sustained growth; creating more and better jobs for women and men; and profiting from the “youth bulge” by investing in them. By 2050, 224 million more people will be looking for jobs.

The level of urbanization in Pakistan is the highest in South Asia. The urban population of Pakistan is likely to cross the proportion of the rural population by 2050. The report said that family planning is one of the smartest SDG priorities, with sweeping social, economic, and environmental benefits. “Socioeconomic reforms combined with family planning investment provide the largest benefits to Pakistan,” it added. The report further said that one of the SDGs pertaining to good health and well-being aims to ensure universal access to reproductive healthcare services, including family planning—considered one of the most cost-effective targets. It suggests investing in family planning as a necessary step for achieving many of the SDGs.

The pandemic poses a huge challenge to Pakistan. It has exposed all sectors of the country, including its social safety nets, healthcare and education. Its leadership will have to change its mindset and divert huge resources to control the population, develop its human resource and improve the quality of life.