The debate over rising populations and development, especially after a rapid surge in some developing countries, is being raised again in the wake of economic crises that affect resource availability and living standards.
This has prompted Egyptian President Abdul Fattah Al Sisi to find a balanced solution.
There is a clear contradiction depending on the type of country. Rich countries, developed and emerging, do not have sharp rises in population, but they do have better than average growth rates. Developing countries suffer from a large populations and slight — or even decline — in economic growth.
This requires controlling the pace of population growth regardless of other considerations. There are some examples that can explain such a complex relationship between population growth and development, which overlaps with environmental, economic, social and religious factors.
More than three decades ago, the Chinese authorities took a decision on birth control so that each family could have only one child. It focused on achieving higher growth rates, which transformed China’s economy from the bottom rankings among G-20 economies to be the second largest in the world.
Recently, China allowed families to have more than one child after a major economic expansion created ample resources and infrastructure facilities and the need for more manpower.
The Egyptian experience is quite different. Its population has quadrupled in sixty years, to almost 100 million, while resources have remained the same. The Nile River flow rate has, unfortunately, declined after many dams were established in the upstream countries.
To make the situation even worse, the economy has grown at rates slower than population increases, which has placed great pressure on natural resources and infrastructure, leading to a decline in living standards and increased unemployment. This has encouraged Al Sisi to adopt solutions to find a correct relationship in this equation.
The experience of developed countries is similar to that of the Gulf countries, but with different composition of their societies. The West suffers from ageing societies, while those in the Gulf states are young. Still, they are suffering from shortages in trained and qualified manpower because of high development rates, which need labour, and this is why developed countries are carrying out an ongoing naturalisation campaign.
More than half a century ago, the Gulf states focused on high fertility rates, which doubled but with limited naturalisation. Meanwhile, Gulf import of labour led to higher costs along with creating a situation of outward remittance flows, which exceeded $120 billion last year compared to $70 billion in 2012.
Fertility rates among Gulf citizens are declining, which is normal in light of the high level of education and increased consumption needs. This may lead to a naturalisation process that must focus on competencies and scientific and professional qualifications, which can add something to the Gulf’s future development and stability.
This is because the Gulf countries are in dire need of these competencies, especially as there is a fierce global competition to attract qualified professionals. It is true that population growth is not required in all countries and may need to be temporarily curtailed to establish a proper relationship between development, available resources and population growth.
But some do need to see a qualitative change to cope with a knowledge-based economy. In this case, an increase in population can be a major factor pushing these countries to expand their domestic markets and aim for production gains. Considerable potential would thereby be made available to develop non-oil sectors, which is a strong base for economic diversification and a strategic goal these countries are seeking to achieve.
Dr Mohammad Al Asoomi is a UAE economic expert and specialist in economic and social development in the UAE and the GCC countries.