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Late, Long and Few

If, like myself, you are not a frequent traveler to Heliopolis, then while you are inevitably stuck in traffic right after the 6th of October bridge exit on Salah Salem, you will experience a traumatic event. This is assured and unavoidable. You see, the towering CAPMAS building has a death clock that tick tocks with every inch you take towards your destination.

Last week, CAPMAS released the results of its latest census. The population of Egypt is now more than 104 million.

Newsweek published a story a few months ago with the title “Forget Isis, Egypt’s Population Boom Is Its Biggest Threat”. The article proceeds to lay out everything it says on the tin. It describes how Egypt’s population has grown from just over 66 million at the turn of the 21st century to where we are today. Folks, that’s an increase of over 35 million people in 17 years, approximately 2 million more each year. Based on the current rate, demographers project that the country’s total population will hit 150 million by 2050. Some believe it could even reach higher than that. The article talks about how no state, no matter how strong or economically powerful, could possibly keep up with this rate of population growth. The healthcare, education and infrastructure systems, no matter how ambitious, would simply buckle under the pressure. The math just doesn’t add up.

Yet, at the very same time, we are told about how Egypt’s “solid demographics” is one of our largest assets. Government officials and investors alike find our growing population, especially the youth segment, as an appealing and attractive investment proposition.

How can we reconcile these two viewpoints, which seem so contradictory?

When PwC released its report “How will the global economic order change by 2050” in February, we were all amazed that the report predicted that Egypt would be the 15th strongest economy in the world. That’s a progress of 6 places in a little over three decades that would catapult us above Italy, Canada, Spain and Australia. That would really be something, wouldn’t it?

There’s only one problem though - like any forward looking report, the PwC report is built on a series of assumptions. One of those assumptions for Egypt’s projections is a steadily declining population growth rate. How realistic can this assumption be when, since 2008, we have in fact experienced an alarming increase in the population growth rate?

The surge over the past few years actually reverses a trend of a declining population growth rate that Egypt experienced over the previous decades as a result of a successful long term approach to family planning. Nothing I have read satisfactorily explains why this trend reversal happened, but then again I am not an expert. That fact is though – regardless of the reasoning, it did happen and it is a problem. A 104 million and counting sized problem.

There are of course those who seek to down play the correlation between poverty and population growth. I must admit that I view these opinions with the same level of disdain I have for climate change deniers. Ladies and gentlemen – I am sorry to inform you that the dangers are very real and, if they are not addressed swiftly and decisively, the results will be catastrophic. End of text.

Having a large young demographic is by all accounts a good thing, providing you have the right policies in place to mobilize that young population in the right direction. We need a multi-pronged, cohesive and long-term approach to a whole area of issues in order to get the best out of our young talent. That means better education, better healthcare, better infrastructure and a system that accommodates and incentivizes SMEs, entrepreneurship, manufacturing, agriculture, IT and any other sectors that can transform Egypt into a dynamic export oriented power house.

Most importantly, however, we need family planning policies that ensure that all of the growth and prosperity created by such a young demographic are not laid to waste by an ever-increasing population. There is no contradiction - we can and should be targeting policies that best utilize our young demographic and aims to aggressively reduce our population growth rate.

Fortunately, there are models from around the world that we can observe and learn from on this front. The Asian tigers, for example, got their house in order and paved the way for almost unprecedented success. And no one can deny that out of all of them, China is the undisputed head of the streak.

China’s one child policy is as infamous as it is misunderstood. The media in the West has often painted a very negative picture of this policy along with the stock imagery of forced abortions, gender inequality and even infanticide. And while many of these accusations may be true, it does not tell the whole story.

In the 1970s, China realized that the country’s rapidly growing population posed a significant risk to its plans for economic development as well as a risk to the environment and its natural resources. After a series of family planning initiatives, China’s Deng Xiaoping implemented the one-child policy in 1979. Starting in 1980, the policy was implemented universally across China, but exceptions could be made for special circumstances, such as if the child or the parent were handicapped or if the firstborn was a girl.

Unlike what most people think, the approach of the one-child policy was mostly about incentivizing compliance, as opposed to imposing sanctions. Those who adhered to the policy would get preferential treatment when it came to government job opportunities, advancement, state benefits, etc. This approach was complimented with making birth control widely available. Sanctions were also imposed, including fines, forced abortions and sterilizations (the latter primarily of women), but this was generally quite rare, especially when compared to the overall size of the program.

As a result of the one child policy, it is estimated that over 400 million births were prevented. That is a reduction of over 5% of the world’s population as it stands today. China moved from the 10th largest economy in 1979 to the 2nd largest economy in the world today. Can you imagine if those births were not prevented and the impact it would have had on poverty, the environment and the strain of our world’s natural resources today?

Egypt’s population today is growing 5 times faster than China. The Egyptian government have, on several occasions, identified that Egypt has an over population crisis. That is a good start. But identifying the solution and acting aggressively and decisively is the hard part that we have struggled with for far too long. Stories of unintended births because of birth control shortages in the market is a huge worry and a gross mismanagement of the crisis. Knee jerk reactions to address underage marriage may make for good headlines, but these kind of statements are as short sighted as they are short lived; the problem goes far deep than that.

As a taxpayer, I do not support footing the bill for the excesses of others who have been holding this country hostage for decades. There is no sensible social, economic or religious argument that can convince me that the road to catastrophe, mass poverty and the destruction of the planet is justified. As far as I am concerned, not only is this a social, economic, environmental and natural resources issue, it is a national security issue - if we do not act now, we will only have ourselves to blame.

Tick tock. Tick tock.

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