A World Bank report says that with proper policies in place to slow population growth Egypt could have 141 million citizens by 2050 instead of the expected 160 million. Egypt’s current population is 105 million.
Launched this week in Cairo, the report “Achieving the demographic dividend in the Arab Republic of Egypt, choice, not destiny” argues that slowing population growth can be capitalised on to expand the economy. It identifies the “economic benefit to a country that can happen within a window of 15 to 20 years when it undergoes a demographic transition due to a rapid decline in mortality followed by a rapid decline in fertility” leading to “smaller, healthier families, and a youth cohort that can be educated and empowered to enter the labour market and match a dynamic labour demand.”
In Egypt such a scenario could see savings in public expenditure on housing, education, and health of LE26.3 billion by 2030, says the report.
Drawing out different scenarios of fertility decline, the report estimates Egypt’s potential cumulative gain in GDP between 2020 and 2030 at between LE284.9 billion and LE569 billion. It warns, however, that the economy could forgo LE103.5 trillion in GDP between 2020 and 2050 by not adopting policies that accelerate the fertility decline scenario.
According to the report, Egypt missed an earlier demographic dividend opportunity: “The country was on a path of declining fertility and an increasing share of its working-age population… but it came off that path and hurt its economy — by an estimated LE150 billion in 2019 GDP — because of a high dependency ratio.”
Between 1988 and 2008 policies promoting family planning and women’s empowerment succeeded in cutting down the number of births per woman from 4.5 in 1988 to 3.0, but the downward trend was reversed and by 2014 the number of births per woman had climbed back up to 3.5. “This reversal was not only alarming but has been seen in only a handful of countries worldwide,” says the report.
After 2005, increased demand for children was led by educated urban and wealthier women. This goes against global trends where fertility decline is led by wealthier groups. “The demand for children is likely the main reason for the change in fertility rate, which should also provide important input on how to prioritise population policy,” says the report.
By 2014, the resulting rise in fertility rates led to what the report calls a “youth boom”, with 33.2 per cent of the population under the age of 14 years. Meanwhile, 5.1 per cent of the population was aged 60 and above, leading to an increase in the dependency ratio from 59.6 to 61.8 per cent between 2010 and 2014, delaying any demographic dividend.
To turn things around, the report recommends policies that increase the contraceptive prevalence rate, reduce school dropout rates, increase female participation in the labour force, delay the age of marriage, leverage social protection programmes and improve the governance of the population programme.
Among factors affecting Egypt’s fertility increase the report cites “decreased exposure to family planning and reproductive health messages in the media and less availability of information and counselling on family planning and reproductive health; limited contraceptive method mix and a shift in the methods women choose”.
It also notes a trend towards earlier marriage, even among educated women in urban areas, resulting in children being born to younger mothers and at shorter birth intervals.
The report suggests capitalising on social protection initiatives such as the cash transfer Takaful and Karama programmes to promote education for girls and women’s access to health, especially family planning services, and identifies the Decent Life initiative, launched in January 2019, and the National Project for the Development of the Egyptian Family, launched in February 2022, as useful tools to “implement many of the proposed policies and strategies”.
Encouraging women to work is also seen as crucial in cutting fertility rates. The report cites studies showing that “the lack of job opportunities in the formal sector, unfavourable working environments for women [for instance, maternity policies, lack of flexible hours], and the disproportionate burden of household responsibilities are some of the factors contributing to women leaving the labour market to instead invest their time and effort in marriage and childbearing.”
Improving governance of the population programme is seen as key to the success of fertility reduction efforts. The Egyptian National Population Strategy (ENPS) 2015-30, and the Egyptian Population Implementation Plan (2015-20), though “comprehensive, suffer from several pitfalls”.
Among the shortcomings the report identifies fragmented governance and poor accountability, inadequate financial resources resulting in a 50 per cent funding gap, the failure to expand geographic coverage of services due in part to low budget allocation, lack of attention to new sources of higher fertility (including among urban residents, the rich, and the educated) and a focus on the poorest villages, and the failure to engage men as partners in reproductive health and fertility decisions.
To reap the maximum demographic dividend, the report also stresses the need to create productive jobs and reallocate labour towards more productive sectors, ensure an environment friendly to the private sector and to entrepreneurship, and sustain macroeconomic stability and policy predictability.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly