President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has spoken on numerous occasions of how high population growth hampers the development projects the government is trying to implement.
About a year ago when inaugurating the Silo Foods food production city in the Menufiya governorate, he said that the target was to reduce the population growth rate to 400,000 a year for the next ten years, an ambitious target as the population grew by around two million in 2021.
The president’s appeal is consistent with the views of international bodies that place population growth among the ten most serious threats to humanity in the 21st century. These organisations have urged heads of state to devise clear and effective strategies to address this problem that, if left unchecked, can imperil welfare and security.
According to the Population Division of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the global population could grow to 9.7 billion in 2050, of which 4.9 billion would be in Asia and 2.8 billion in Africa and the Middle East. Egypt would account for a major share of the growth in the latter regions, with a projected 151 million people by 2050.
Several factors affect population growth and its impacts. One is life expectancy. High birth rates while life expectancy remains stable will lead to large increases in the ratio of children and young people to adults and the elderly.
The inverse occurs with declining birth rates and longer life expectancy. Shifts in the age demographic of this sort affect the direction of government spending in such sectors as education, job creation and paediatric or geriatric healthcare. Societies generally strive to attain a certain equilibrium in this area.
Migration can also have a significant impact on population growth, especially for countries that are the recipients of large numbers of displaced persons or refugees. In such cases, policies need to be developed in response to such questions as the pace with which refugees can be taken in, how they can be accommodated in the short term, and how best to assimilate them in the long term in the light of domestic demographic or occupational needs.
A third factor relates to the gender balance in society and prospects for sustainable development. In general, societies try to maintain an equilibrium in this dimension as well, and they therefore combat phenomena that might reduce the ratio of females to males, such as human trafficking, while simultaneously promoting the genuine empowerment of women as a factor crucial to social wellbeing and advancement.
The ways in which societies and governments handle such issues related to population growth are measures of their governance. The sounder the latter is, the more the question of population will be treated constructively from the perspective of optimal investment in human resources.
The results will be seen tangibly in programmes and projects that progress towards the realisation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Needless to say, poor governance yields the opposite results: the poor utilisation of human resources and shortfalls in the realisation of the SDGs.
Often population policies tend to treat the symptoms rather than the source. In other words, they target the resultant problems and not the root causes. Moreover, a lack of effective population policies in the context of a prevalent culture can become a source of other problems, such as underage marriages, domestic violence, rising crime rates, the attrition of national economic resources, and a deterioration of public services and infrastructure.
* The writer is head of the security research department at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a visiting professor of political science at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.