Timely investment could turn the challenge of dealing with an ageing population in developed countries and a youth surge in Africa into unprecedented opportunity for growth, experts told the UN Commission on Population and Development at its annual session.
The Alternate Minister for Labour of Greece, Rania Antonopoulos, in a keynote address to the Commission’s second day of discussions, told delegates that declining fertility and mortality rates throughout the world could lead to positive long-term transformation. “These are signs of success and of doing things right for the majority of the population,” she said, emphasizing that rising longevity should be celebrated.
In Europe, North America and Japan, where the labour force was ageing, Governments were confronting the ambitious task of providing pensions and health care for older workers, she said. Increased life expectancy created an opportunity to raise the statutory retirement age and boost contributions to pension funds, while lower fertility enabled greater investment in children’s education and skills development. Such interventions in time would raise labour productivity and boost economic growth.
In Africa, which was witnessing a youth bulge and where the working age population was estimated to increase substantially in the years to come, countries had an enormous opportunity to boost the labour force and their economies. That would, however, require targeted investment in the continent’s young people, she said, warning that a youth surge could present a major economic burden, cause unrest and even conflict.
Timely investments in jobs would help harness the potential of youth, she continued, stressing that conditions must be met to ensure that the 200 million unemployed people worldwide — 37 per cent of whom were between the ages of 15 and 24 — could gradually join the labour force. Transitioning women from unpaid care work into the formal paid labour market had immense potential to boost economic growth and ensure that women could take care of themselves, including beyond retirement.
During the general debate, many delegates from Africa echoed those assessments, saying that comprehensive family planning strategies, including establishing a minimum marriage age and policies to reduce the birth rate, improve child survival and decrease mortality had proven successful.
In Sudan, where lower birth and mortality rates had caused a demographic shift, the Government had adopted policies leading to continued economic growth and new job opportunities, said that country’s representative. Next year, Sudan would hold its first population census since the southern region broke off to become the separate State of South Sudan, resulting in a new demographic reality.
Botswana’s representative said that with a national economy too reliant on the diamond industry, investing in the private and agricultural sector, and education for women and girls, would help create new jobs and sharpen skillset.
Swaziland’s Minister for Home Affairs said that more than half of her country’s population was under the age of 20. The Government was fully aware of the importance of investing in young people to address early sexual activity and marriage, sexual abuse, substance abuse, HIV infection and high unemployment.
The Chairman of Nigeria’s Population Commission said that his country’s population — the largest in Africa — was growing rapidly. With more than 40 per cent of all Nigerians under the age of 15, there was a huge opportunity to reap demographic dividends and the Government would continue to invest heavily in the creation of decent jobs, particularly for young people.
Zambia’s delegate expressed concern that a large proportion of young people were dependent on the small population that was gainfully employed. Malawi’s representative said that with Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, projected to host 19 per cent of the world’s young people by 2020 and 34 per cent by 2050, the President had introduced community technical colleges in rural areas. Malawi also had established a minimum marriage age of 18.
Speakers also discussed challenges in the developed world, with Belgium’s delegate saying that an ageing population, in addition to presenting new challenges in sustaining social security, had raised the question of how best to embrace migrants to enhance demographic dividend.
Echoing the sentiment expressed by the keynote speaker, the representative of the United States reiterated that the demographic shift had occurred because “we are saving lives” and added that “now is the time to harness this change for everyone’s benefit”
EZE DURUIHEOMA, Chairman of the National Population Commission of Nigeria, associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, and the statement to be delivered by the African Group, said his country’s population — the largest in Africa — was relatively young and growing rapidly. More than 40 per cent of all Nigerians were under age 15. Half of the female population was in the reproductive years and only 3 per cent of the population constituted people aged 65 and over. Fertility remained at an average of six children per women, he added. While such a young population presented many challenges, it also provided a huge opportunity to reap demographic dividends.
Nigeria would continue to invest heavily in the creation of decent jobs, particularly for young people, he continued, underscoring the Government’s intention to also invest in education and modern agriculture, and combat desertification. Underscoring the critical role of accurate data in development planning, he called corruption the antithesis of development and urged combating the illicit flow of funds and goods. For its part, the international community had a role to play in helping Nigeria implement appropriate economic reforms and initiatives focused on fighting poverty. Women’s participation was also a prerequisite to economic growth.
LAURA ELENA FLORES HERRERA (Panama), associating herself with statements of the Group of 77 and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said her country was in the middle of the demographic transition process. Nevertheless, portions of Panamanian society continued to experience various levels of inequality. The demographic transition had changed the profile of the country, affecting growth and the structure of the population, which in turn impacted each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Currently, the size of the population was increasing due to migration, which must be seen as a phenomenon that had wide-ranging impacts, including an increase in poverty and inequality, as well as a slowing of the demographic transition with regard to ageing. Only with reliable data could there be public policies that were well-focused. Institutions must be improved, strengthened and properly coordinated to ensure the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
STEFANIE AMADEO (United States) said knowledge, resource and technological capabilities had grown significantly in recent years. Over the last half century, society structures had occurred because “we are saving lives”. Child mortality had decreased significantly. “Now is the time to harness this change for everyone’s benefit,” she urged, underscoring the need to work with policymakers, civil society and international organizations to enable all countries to live up to their potential. Investing in girls and women as well as ensuring reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes was vital. Countries unable to turn a demographic transition into a demographic dividend risked a stable future, she added, stressing that sustainable development policies that took into account demographic changes were crucial to collective global security. Ageing societies presented as many social, political, and economic challenges as did booming young populations. Stressing the need to combat discrimination and maintain quality of life for older persons, she said data disaggregated by age and sex was vital as countries prepared to guide their populations through demographic changes. Open, new and usable data must inform decision-making to ensure healthy lives for all.
LIMIA ABDELGHAFAR KHALAFALLA AHMED (Sudan) associating herself with the statements of the Group of 77 and the Arab Group, as well as the statement to be made by the African Group, recalled that Sudan was witnessing a demographic shift due to changes in population dynamics brought on by reductions in birth and mortality rates. Those population shifts required new policies, as well as national and local programmes, aligned with the implementation of Agenda 2030. Sudan recognized the importance of that transition and had adopted policies leading to continued economic growth and an increase in gross domestic product (GDP), as well as new job opportunities. Her country had increased investment in human capital and adopted health policies to mainstream the availability of primary health care and combat diseases, while also improving reproductive health services. Free treatment and immunizations were offered to all children under the age of five. Sudan had also focused on the development of human capacities by expanding technological and vocational education. Sudan was preparing for its upcoming sixth census in 2018, which was of significance as it would be the first since the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, which had resulted in a new demographic reality.
PRINCESS TSANDZILE DLAMINI, Minister for Home Affairs of Swaziland, noted that her country was experiencing a demographic transition, characterized by a youthful population. Approximately 40 per cent of the population was under the age of 15, and, overall, 52 per cent of the population was under the age of 20. The country was experiencing a declining fertility rate, which had resulted in changes in the population age structure. That demographic transition had opened a window of opportunity for economic growth and poverty reduction for Swaziland, particularly due to the decreasing ratio of dependents to the working-age population. Nevertheless, the youth of Swaziland faced challenges with regard to early sexual activity, HIV infections, early marriage, sexual abuse, substance abuse, high unemployment and teen pregnancy, among others. In that context, her Government was fully aware of the critical importance of investing in young people, across all economic sectors.
CHARLES THEMBANI NTWAAGAE (Botswana) said his country was experiencing a decline in fertility and mortality, higher life expectancy and an increase in the economically active population. Factors that led to the decline of Botswana’s fertility rate included a comprehensive family planning programme, improved child survival, and increased female education and participation in the labour force. Botswana continued to face challenges, including high youth unemployment as well as inadequately skilled human capital. In addition, the national economy was too reliant on the diamond industry, he continued, stressing the need to diversify the economy and develop the private sector. The Government had enacted programmes aimed at promoting citizen entrepreneurship and agricultural development.
MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), associating himself with the European Union, said his country’s growing ageing population presented new challenges in sustaining social security. Belgium was also presented with the question of how to best embrace migrants as population growth did not itself guarantee demographic dividends. Access to reproductive health services and family planning, and quality education and jobs was vital. Expressing support for the 2030 Agenda, particularly elements regarding female empowerment, he said women and girls throughout the world should have the right to decide if, when, and with whom they wanted to have children. Demographic analysis and timely data would be helpful to shape demographic policy.
CLAUDE STANISLAS BOUAH-KAMON (Côte d’Ivoire) said that his country strove to become an emerging economy by 2020, to enable it to be a beacon for the rest of the African subregion. A number of challenges remained however, particularly regarding the country’s population due to Côte d’Ivoire’s high birth rate of an average of five children per woman. In 1960, the population was about 4 million, although by 2014 it had surged to 23 million, a six-fold increase. Côte d’Ivoire had a significant number of young people and 16 per cent of the population was under the age of five. Eighty per cent were under the age of 35, which resulted in a high unemployment rate. Despite years of crises, Côte d’Ivoire had made significant efforts to bolster economic growth, while also living up to its national and international commitments on population and development. In 2015, the country had put in place a new population policy through the prism of the demographic dividend aimed at, in part, decent jobs for young people
MARC-ANDRÉ BLANCHARD (Canada) said that the achievement of full human potential would not be possible without addressing discrimination, violence, and continued human rights violations faced by women and girls. It was imperative that women and girls, particularly adolescents, were able to make decisions free from coercion, violence and discrimination. Empowered women could choose where they work and collect more household savings for old age, which would benefit both households and national economies. When women and girls were valued, well nourished, healthy and educated, they become empowered to contribute to the development of their communities. Through its efforts to increase access to quality education, supporting skills development and working to address barriers girls faced in accessing education, Canada was helping to create sustainable communities.
NECTON D. MHURA (Malawi), associating himself with the Group of 77 and the statement to be made by the African Group, underscored the importance of inclusive policies that worked for all and in solidarity with the United Nations. For the Sustainable Development Goals to succeed, they must respond to the local context through capacity-building, awareness and education initiatives. Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, was projected to host 19 per cent of the world’s young people by 2020 and 34 per cent by 2050. As such, the President had introduced community technical colleges in rural areas. More broadly, population experiences reflected different circumstances. Data was essential to address diverse population experiences, he said, calling health and education the backbone of productivity. Malawi also had established a minimum marriage age of 18 so that girls could gain education, maturity and choice.
AUXILIA B. PONGA (Zambia), associating herself with the statement of the Group of 77 and the statement to be made by the African Group, said that her country was in its second stage of demographic transition, with a high fertility rate, despite the widespread use of modern contraceptives among married women. The country’s mortality rate was declining, although it still remained relatively high. The population was still quite young and its age structure had remained stagnant over the last several years. Young people comprised more than 45 per cent of persons aged 15 and younger. A large proportion of people were dependent on the small population that was gainfully employed. Moving forward the country hoped to leverage its youthful population by pursing integrative policies and programme prioritizing investments in economic, social and demographic factors, as outlined in the Seventh National Development Plan.
Timely investments in jobs would help harness the potential of young people, she said, stressing that conditions must be met to ensure that the 200 million unemployed people worldwide — 37 per cent of whom were between the ages of 15 and 24 — would gradually re-join the labour force. In Europe, where roughly 18 to 20 million people were unemployed, distribution of income, the prudent stabilization of policies and observance of fiscal rules had the potential to halve the unemployment rate. Lack of coordination between economic and social policy was detrimental to growth and inclusion. Fear that had surfaced recently was driving the call for restricting public spending and investment.
To plan ahead, it would be vital to decipher the ratio of dependent older persons to the ratio of productive labour market participants, she said. However, it was important to bear in mind that not all persons above 65 were dependent and not all working age persons were economically active. On the gender gap, she said that addressing differences must be a priority in all economies, including advanced and ageing ones. Transitioning women from unpaid care work into the formal paid labour market had immense potential to boost economic growth and ensure that women could take care of themselves and contribute to their communities, including beyond retirement.