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Trends of Demographic Transition Across the MENA Region

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: International Studies
Wordcount: 3985 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Assignment 1: Discuss and appraise critically the experience of ‘demographic transition’ in the MENA region. What is the ‘Demographic Gift’ and what are its likely effects on economic growth in the MENA region?

Word Count: 2431

Demographic transition, hereafter defined as the change from high pre-industrial to low post-industrial levels of fertility and mortality rates, presents a blessing as well as a curse in disguise for the MENA region countries. During the 60s and 70s, Arab women had the highest regional average of births per woman (Rashad, 2000), second only to Sub-Saharan Africa (Williamson & Yousef, 2002). Since, scholars have dispelled the homogenous belief of higher fertility desires across the region, and have now accounted for a vastly different picture. For the purposes of this essay, I focus primarily on countries within the Maghreb, notably Morocco, as the country experienced a drastic, and unusual demographic transition within four years between 1973 and 1977. I argue throughout that, demographic gift, understood as population growth, where there are larger numbers of people at working ages than dependent ages (Bloom & Williamson, 1998), is falsely termed a gift. Indeed, the financial and economic benefits of a large workforce is short lived for the incumbent government, as institutional support for a rapidly ageing population will be necessary in the future, thus ending any economic advantage. To this end I will first examine the general trends of demographic transition across the MENA region as a whole. Throughout, I will consider the nexus of fertility and mortality on the experience of demographic transition, first focusing on elements such as nuptiality trends, and women’s wellbeing. Finally, to understand the other side of this discussion, I will analyse the impacts and consequences of the retirement needs of the ageing population, both economic and social in terms of medical understandings, and what this means for incumbent and future governments. It is important to note, that other factors such as urbanisation, the education of women, higher female participation rates in the labour market, family planning, and the import of eurocentric connotations of family structures also have a significant impact on the MENA’s demographic transition (Sutton, 1999). However, the dichotomy presented between fertility and mortality rates and the given policy implications for incumbent governments offers huge explanatory scope to analyse the constraints and challenges faced by an ageing population. To this end, Morocco offers a case study as to how low fertility and mortality rates can slow down economic growth. Indeed, with the unique consequence of losing non-tax revenues from its phosphate mines, the Moroccan state faces high pressure to accommodate an ageing population and fewer people of working age. Thus the state must necessarily sacrifice investment and saving for state support and services provision.

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A revised appraisal of the MENA region’s demography is necessary given scholarly discourse in the mid-20th century. In 1985, Clarke posited that ‘the great majority of Muslim countries have experienced very little demographic transition, and there is relatively weak correlation between economic status and the stage of economic transition’. This account is now categorically untrue. Economic status of the state depends on a complex series of social, political, and economic dynamics. Thus, the homogenising portrayal of the region is largely misleading, indeed Sutton (1999) amongst others, has noted the clear convergence of slowing population growth rates of Europe and the MENA region. Frequent UN population projections were revised regularly. Note for instance, the UN projection in 1984 for Morocco’s population in 2025 was 40.1 million (Sutton, 1999). In 1992, this estimate was revised to 47.5 million (Courbage & Fargues, 1992), however in 1994, the rapidly declining fertility rate of the Maghreb was taken into account; Morocco stood at 40.7 million. Today, the total population for the MENA region stands at 444 million (World Bank, 2018), which represents a four-fold increase from the population in the 1950s, while North Africa represents 50% of this total figure and a five-fold increase from the 50s (Worldometers, 2018). While this reflects a seemingly beneficial image overall, the benefits of fertility decline may be reversed by the impact of high fertility and low mortality rates of the 60s and 70s (Sutton, 1999). Consider for instance, that in 1996, crude birth rates represented 20-24 births per thousand, and in 2018, this figure is closer to 19-21 births per thousand (World Bank, 2018). Yet, the crude birth rate from 1996 has fallen steadily from an average of 6.589 deaths per thousand, to under 5.13 in 2018 (World Bank, 2018). This has significant implications when considering the number of people still living, and ageing for the future demographic of the region. Therefore, Schulz’s (1970) warning that ‘rapid population growth…emerged as an impediment to the future development of many low-income countries in the [region]’, remains ever pressing and vogue. The impact of an incredibly young population in the 70s caused concerns as the region’s labour market was already saturated and forced young workers to seek labour opportunities in Europe or neighbouring countries (Al-Qudsi et al., 1995). Concurrently, by the year 2000, the MENA labour market had to absorb 30 million workers according to the World Bank (1994). Now, the constraints of MENA governments reside with a rapidly ageing population, which unsparingly demand institutional support, and leave little room for investment and spending in other sectors.

Fertility transition is one of the main contributing factors of demographic transition, which presents the benefits of this process. Indeed North African countries tended to start their transitions earlier than countries in the rest of the region, have larger declines, and now offer a total fertility rate (TFR) of 3.0-4.0 children per woman (Rashad & Khadr, 2001). For Morocco, this figure averages at 2.77 (World Bank 2018). To this end, the causes for the decline in fertility rates can be expressed into two categories: first, marriage, which includes the age of women at first marriage, a higher prevalence of divorce, and widowhood; and the second is the wellbeing of women, including the use of contraceptives, and encouragement of family planning. Both of which have a positive effect on demographic transition and the economic wellbeing of the government. As Adlakha (1991) notes, marriage in North Africa was the most dominant, or indeed arguably, the only factor which contributed to fertility decline. The age of women at first marriage holds great significance when considering fertility decline (Rashad & Khadr, 2001), as the later women marry, the closer they are to the end of their reproductive years. In the 1970s 73-86% of women across the region, married in their early twenties, by 1997, this figure only represented 29-48% of 20 year old women.

Furthermore, in countries which experienced greater changes in the timings of marriage, there was a high correlation seen with the number of women remaining unmarried through their thirties. Several other components such as spending more time in education, ideational changes, and greater female participation in the labour force have explained the causes of delayed marriage (Blossfeld & Huinink 1991; Malhotra 1997; Oppenheimer 1988; Karkaby & Stier, 2017). Indeed, in nearly half of Arab countries, a woman will spend about a third of her life single (Rashad & Khadr, 2001). Such changes are seen in Morocco. Official estimates claim that 28 is the average age of marriage for women (Kuonduono, 2018), with 8 million women remaining single (60%). Unsurprisingly, as nuptiality trends have changed, so have attitudes surrounding remaining single, divorce, and widowhood. The prevalence of divorce and widowhood amongst women across North Africa has increased for the ages of 15-70. According to a United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Empowerment of Women findings, the 2004 Family Code was amended to allow women to divorce their husbands on the same grounds, and removed husbands’ special privileges (2015). This rise in divorce is clearly exemplified from 2013 to 2017 as the number of divorces led by women in Morocco skyrocketed from 40,000 per year to 100,000 per year (UN Women, 2018). By delaying marriage, or choosing single life, women have reduced the fertility rate across the Maghreb, which allows them to contribute meaningfully to the economy. Here the ‘gift’ of demographic transition is seen, benefitting government. By fostering different nuptiality trends, whether intentionally or otherwise, the role and perception of women in the country has entirely altered and fed into a new ideational belief which favours female-forward thinking. This bulge in the number of workers offers huge potential, as single women account for 50% of the total labour force in 2017 compared to the 12.57% female labour participation in 1970 (World Bank 2018). Thus, with the significant decrease of the dependency ratio below working age, greater scope is offered for the government to save and invest. This shifts interests away from inherently demographic aims to more economically daring investments.

The second important variable is the wellbeing of women and the specific role a change in ideational preferences can have on the decline in fertility experienced across the MENA region. The onset of early fertility decline that occurred in countries with low per capita resources, such as Morocco, Egypt, and Tunisia, had national motivations to put in place strong family planning measures, as aforementioned (MakhLouf Obermeyer, 1992). As Mason (1985) notes, family planning programmes achieve the greatest levels of success when combined with changes in socio-economic terms which relate to promoting women’s status, as well as smaller family sizes (D’Addato, 2006). Moroccan policy on population underwent a huge change in the 60s, and moved from pronatalist policy trends to favouring family planning methods (Eltigani, 2001). Agency and choice of contraception fell into the hands of women, which resulted in a huge decrease in infant mortality rates, from 332 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 112 per 100,000 births in 2009, reflecting a remarkable 60 percent decline (UNFPA, 2011). Since 2000, demand for family planning has increased sharply, reflecting the aforementioned trend in women seeking fewer children. This holds great significance when considering the role of insurance that children offer ageing parents, as Bongaarts and Casterline (2013) rightly posit. Note for instance, the importance of kin and community based support; previously children offered financial, social, and emotional support to ageing parents; as the number of children per family diminishes so do their ability to safeguard the well beings and livelihoods of their elderly parents in the future. However, with the rise in prevalence of later marriages across North Africa, and the decrease in births per woman, there is also an increase in the number of ageing single women. According to Hajjar et al., (2013) 50.6% of women aged 72 and above in Morocco are widows, with 32.8% of them having children. The responsibility of caring for these women as they age becomes vogue. Responsibility of care can no longer rely on extensive family structures but rather institutional structures. Demographic ‘gift’ therefore presents challenges for incumbent and future governments.

The consequences of an ageing population can be categorised into economic well-being of the elderly first, and secondly medical advancements and the prolongment of life. By the year 2030, the UN estimates that 21% of the Arab population will be over the age of 60, and fast increasing (Rashad & Khadr, 2001). Economic wellbeing of older persons is defined as their ability to support themselves and contribute significantly to their community (Ibid, 2001). Khadr (1997), found a positive correlation between poverty and ageing; this correlation is linked to the inadequacy of pensions as well as the emergence of health issues which consume a significant proportion of these individual’s income (Tadros, 1984). However, as Rashad (1997) notes, more than 25% of women reported their children as their basic source of income. Social welfare systems in the MENA region rely heavily on community or family based social support (Ismail et al., 2016), with cohabitation as one of the government’s most prominent policies. The number of single women as well as the prevalence of delayed marriage challenge this policy implementation. Furthermore, wealth is poorly distributed; pension fund assets in Morocco account for 17% of GDP (World Bank, 2018), an increase of 3% in nearly a decade and yet less than 25% of the elderly receive any social security from the state (Ismail et al., 2016). The government overhauled state pension and delayed retirement age to 63 until 2022 as a means of coping (Guerraoui, 2017), however this is but a temporary solution. As Cowgill (1972) notes, with the introduction of more eurocentric attitudes of social networks and social responsibility, traditional familial support [will necessarily] be replaced with institutional support. Similarly, with the introduction of modern medicine, morbidity has been compressed into a short period before death (Fries, 1983). Modern capabilities and progress in medical technologies has contributed to prolonging life by reducing the severity of illnesses (Manton, 1982). Indeed amongst the elderly, individuals self-evaluate themselves as being in poor health (Khadr, 1997), with more than 29% reporting that they have experienced ‘at least two illnesses in the preceding six months that affected the activities of their daily lives’ (Rashad & Khadr, 2001). This has severe implications on younger generations. The middle generation, of working ages, will spend longer catering to the needs of their ageing parents, this will likely have a negative effect of draining personal resources. These groups will likely depend more readily on state resources, and thus economic growth cannot flourish as resources are siphoned away to support demographic investments.

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To conclude, demographic transition in the MENA region has presented a much more complex picture than was originally devised by scholars. Similarly, demographic gift can only be considered as a gift for a short number of decades, favouring government saving and investment in the economic development of the country. The role of a declining fertility rate due to female empowerment and nuptiality trends plays a significant role in how much revenue a government can collect. Indeed with greater numbers of workers, entrepreneurs and contributors, GDP rises. However, this gift later poses a pertinent issue of supporting a large ageing population. Contributing factors include the stark reality that as choices of agency become more prominent, so do the swelling number of people who have little familial support networks and thus who rely on the state. Governmental commitment to the demands of a healthier, ageing population are also prolonged due to medical advancements, which places financial and economic resources under great pressure. Indeed,  with fewer resources available, government saving necessarily becomes government spending, and economic development must be slowed to accommodate the needs and desires of a new demographic.




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