Discussion: Does Demographic Change Set the Pace of Development? (with Jane O’Sullivan, U. Queensland)

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Original Essay: Does Demographic Change Set the Pace of Development? 

Comment:  Jane O’Sullivan, U. Queensland.

A good title but a disappointing treatment. In the context of the fertility transition, age structure and population growth rate are confounded. There is little evidence that age structure per se delivers these benefits – it is the slowing of population growth that affects “demand side”. Of course, age structure affects specifically which areas of demand are first affected, but that’s not what matters. The problem is that the “demographic dividend” discourse is used as a means to not have to talk about population growth, but in doing this, it undermines the motivation to get fertility down below replacement-level, which is the urgent need. Indeed, by fuelling the “aging crisis” myth, the DD message actively discourages efforts to complete the transition to low fertility. Also, the role of family planning programs is missing from the flow diagram. Education, income and child survival don’t have strong effects on fertility without explicit behaviour-change programs.    [Note: see Dr. O’Sullivan’s research on population impacts, demographic ageing, food security, and climate change issues]


Reply:  Richard Cincotta, Woodrow Wilson Center/Stimson Center

Thank you for your interesting comments, Dr. O’Sullivan. And, welcome to the growing ranks of the disappointed.

The curves featured in this essay were developed as part of the (U.S.) National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) long-range effort (the Global Trends series of publications) solely for the purpose of forecasting changes in political, social, and economic indicators from 2 to 20 years into the future.

For forecasting, the method has worked surprisingly well (you can read some of its forecasts in my other NSB posts). Analysts have used the method’s “eight rules of political demography” (also on NSB) to successfully forecast the rise of a liberal democracy in North Africa two years before the Arab Spring, to identify the remaining clusters of countries most at risk of intra-state conflicts, and to predict declines from liberal democracy among youthful countries.

Along the way, however, its findings have disappointed (or even angered) diplomats, advocates, and political scientists who have deeply-held views of how the world works.

One source of disappointment has to do with population growth. While states with a population under 5 million (particularly small island states) do, indeed, appear to develop politically and socioeconomically more quickly than expected, we have found no additional statistical evidence suggesting that larger population sizes or densities are—so far, at least—a “net impediment” to political and socio-economic development.

For example, population size and density may depress economic productivity by limiting per-capita freshwater supplies, exacerbating pollution, and forcing agriculture into marginally productive land. At the same time, however, population growth drives urbanization, which positively affects per-capita income and speeds other development transitions (including fertility decline).

My own experience with assessing population’s influence leads me to conclude that, in general, increasing human density disrupts and alters natural ecosystem processes (i.e., nature). Unfavorable age structures disrupt development processes (i.e., the state). States are, indeed, affected by ecosystem disruption, but our species has become very good at making and remaking its own highly productive ecosystems—most of which create additional long-term disruption (e.g., climate change, species loss, high nitrogen loading in soils, etc.–a point that you know well from your own research).

As for your critique of Fig. 3: I have indicated (in the diagram) that income and child survival’s effects on fertility are (as you suggest) weak or highly variable. However, I believe that most development analysts would disagree with your assessment of education’s impact on fertility—particularly the impact of women’s educational attainment, which in the past has been statistically strong. Nonetheless (consistent with your assertion), the effect of women’s educational attainment on fertility in tropical sub-Saharan African countries seems, so far, to be weaker than expected (when compared to the Asian and Latin American fertility transitions).

While you insist that getting fertility “down below replacement-level” is an urgent need, our analysis differs somewhat. To achieve a median age of 26 years—the beginning of the demographic window—fertility must decline below 2.8 children per woman. However, continued progress toward a median age of 30 years has generally led to additional fertility decline to near-replacement (close to TFR 2.1) or below-replacement levels.

On population aging: A myth? Perhaps you are referring to the mistaken beliefs/rhetoric of some political leaders of tropical African states who fear an aging population—seemingly unaware that the current UN Medium Fertility Variant scenario projects that such large proportions of elderly, for most tropical African states, will likely show up on the far side of 2100 (probably a century into the future). I believe that, to achieve a median age of 26 years, the leadership of those states must be prepared to dismantle the traditional and religious constraints on women’s lives (much like Habib Bourguiba did shortly following Tunisia’s independence), in addition to supporting quality family planning programs, girls’ education, and elevating women into positions of political power.

However, for the group of very low fertility European and East Asian countries that are rapidly advancing into the post-mature phase of the transition (median age 46+ years), the challenges of population aging are hardly mythical. Does population aging qualify as a crisis for economic and political liberalism? No one knows. However, the most credible research foresees substantial fiscal strains on retirement and healthcare systems (see Lee & Mason’s National Transfer Accounts review), and the admixture of population aging and immigration seems (to me, at least) to be yielding some unfavorable political byproducts.

Thanks again for your comments, Dr. O’Sullivan. // Richard Cincotta