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The good, the bad, and population growth

Posted by pungkasali on June 29, 2010

Pungkas Bahjuri Ali, Canberra | Tue, 06/29/2010 9:22 AM | the Jakarta Post Opinion

The Central Statistics Agency (BPS) is conducting a decennial population census. Coincidentally, the event is taking place when officials appeal for public support for the family planning program. The census is, in one way or another, deemed by many a perfect means to show the indication of a “population explosion” as the implication of weakening family programs.

At a glance, it seems justifiable to make this association. It’s not surprising that, afterward, concern to reduce fertility further by strengthening the family planning program across the nation, as it was during the New Order, is built up.

However, stressing too much on fertility reduction through a family planning program as the solution to the population problem in Indonesia could mislead the people on two grounds.

First, in the context of contemporary Indonesia, the fertility rate as manifested by a number of births is not the only source of population growth.

To give an idea, there are approximately 4.3 million births in Indonesia each year. This figure has not been changed over the last decade and, most likely, will not change over the next 25 years.

Why does the population still grow, then?

This is where life expectancy comes in. Mortality rate (especially deaths due to communicable diseases) is decreasing. As a result, people survive longer, and therefore more people are counted in the census, contributing to population growth.

Even when Indonesia is able to notch the total fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman as targeted, the population will still grow. In other words, the population growth is inevitable.

When it comes to fertility reduction, a family planning program is only one part of the equation. Social, cultural, educational and economic welfare play no less important roles.

Delay of marriage, rising cost of rearing children, improved women’s education, and more recognition of women’s roles in modern society, have shaped the idea of having smaller families reduce fertility.

Clearly, there is a share of the burden of reducing fertility with other sectors, primarily economy and education. With the recent advancement of these influential factors, the family program can now mobilize its resources primarily to deal with the unmet need of modern contraceptives and toward the socially and economically disadvantaged segment of population.

This is not an easy task as decentralization has taken its course and the pressure to avoid such past draconian measures is immense.

Second, statements from relevant officials have generated fear of population growth. The fear has been taken whole-heartedly by politicians, scholars across disciplines and the general population.

The issue had a sheer attraction to the media as printed in their headlines. Is there such a blessing in disguise for our population growth?

Population growth has multifaceted consequences. As always, there is the good, the bad and the ugly.

The population growth in Indonesia is in a state of population transition, demographers said. Mortality is declining, followed by the decline of fertility. In such a situation, the youth cohort turns into a working-age generation, while the middle-age generation will technically live longer.

In this type of structure, the population is dominated by people at working age. In Indonesia, the ratio of the working age to children and the elderly (which generally are dependent economically and socially on the working age population) is increasing, and will reach its peak  by approximately 2020. This phenomenon is referred to as the demographic dividend.

This means a lot to the economy. They are there: The abundant segment of the population with potentially higher productivity and stronger purchasing power, which together could spur the productive economy and saving.

It is something too sweet to ignore. For instance, research by David Bloom of Harvard University shows that this demographic dividend accounts for a lion share of 40 percent to economic growth in East Asia Miracle during 1960s-1990s.

The demographic dividend in itself is not a magic bullet, by the way. Several pre-conditions must be set a priority. Adequate investment in health and education is required to improve the quality of the labor force, while sound economic policy stimulates the labor force absorption. At the same time, good governance and effective bureaucracy, such as the taxation system, needs to be put in place for the nation to reap the fruit of this economic growth.

The bad side is always lurking, though, as this generation could be burdensome. Unskilled and uneducated labor reduces competitiveness, while inadequate market infrastructure and investment will leave this generation mostly unused. What is supposed to be productive generation could turn into high unemployment leading to volatile generation.

Finally, when the 2010 census reveals the population size, it should not drag us to a negative view of population growth. Rather, it is a clarion call for a much broader and sustainable population policy.

The government should delve into its deep pocket to ensure a fair share of resources among curbing the population, dealing with population pressure, and pursuing the benefits of demographic dividend.

The population transition is gradual and very slow compared to the typical governmental processes.

Consequently, the demographic dividend appears intangible at one point of time and hence is very easy to let go. Yet, the population growth is by no means different.

Therefore, meticulous and persistent efforts is a necessity in this demanding job. A systematic plan should be laid out in a timely manner. Otherwise, the good and the bad will certainly turn into ugly.

The writer is a PhD candidate at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, the Australian National University, Canberra.


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