Timely Investment Key to Economic Growth in Countries with Ageing Citizens, Youth Surge, Speakers Tell Population and Development Commission

| April 5, 2017

Timely investment could turn the challenge of dealing with an ageing population in developed countries and a youth surge in Africa into unprecedented opportunity for growth, the Commission on Population and Development heard today as it continued its annual session.

The Alternate Minister for Labour of Greece, Rania Antonopoulos, in a keynote address to the Commission’s second day of discussions, told delegates that declining fertility and mortality rates throughout the world could lead to positive long-term transformation.  “These are signs of success and of doing things right for the majority of the population,” she said, emphasizing that rising longevity should be celebrated. 

In Europe, North America and Japan, where the labour force was ageing, Governments were confronting the ambitious task of providing pensions and health care for older workers, she said.  Increased life expectancy created an opportunity to raise the statutory retirement age and boost contributions to pension funds, while lower fertility enabled greater investment in children’s education and skills development.  Such interventions in time would raise labour productivity and boost economic growth. 

In Africa, which was witnessing a youth bulge and where the working age population was estimated to increase substantially in the years to come, countries had an enormous opportunity to boost the labour force and their economies.  That would, however, require targeted investment in the continent’s young people, she said, warning that a youth surge could present a major economic burden, cause unrest and even conflict. 

Timely investments in jobs would help harness the potential of youth, she continued, stressing that conditions must be met to ensure that the 200 million unemployed people worldwide — 37 per cent of whom were between the ages of 15 and 24 — could gradually join the labour force.  Transitioning women from unpaid care work into the formal paid labour market had immense potential to boost economic growth and ensure that women could take care of themselves, including beyond retirement. 

During the general debate, many delegates from Africa echoed those assessments, saying that comprehensive family planning strategies, including establishing a minimum marriage age and policies to reduce the birth rate, improve child survival and decrease mortality had proven successful.  

In Sudan, where lower birth and mortality rates had caused a demographic shift, the Government had adopted policies leading to continued economic growth and new job opportunities, said that country’s representative.  Next year, Sudan would hold its first population census since the southern region broke off to become the separate State of South Sudan, resulting in a new demographic reality.

Botswana’s representative said that with a national economy too reliant on the diamond industry, investing in the private and agricultural sector, and education for women and girls, would help create new jobs and sharpen skillset.

Swaziland’s Minister for Home Affairs said that more than half of her country’s population was under the age of 20.  The Government was fully aware of the importance of investing in young people to address early sexual activity and marriage, sexual abuse, substance abuse, HIV infection and high unemployment.

The Chairman of Nigeria’s Population Commission said that his country’s population — the largest in Africa — was growing rapidly.  With more than 40 per cent of all Nigerians under the age of 15, there was a huge opportunity to reap demographic dividends and the Government would continue to invest heavily in the creation of decent jobs, particularly for young people. 

Zambia’s delegate expressed concern that a large proportion of young people were dependent on the small population that was gainfully employed.  Malawi’s representative said that with Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, projected to host 19 per cent of the world’s young people by 2020 and 34 per cent by 2050, the President had introduced community technical colleges in rural areas.  Malawi also had established a minimum marriage age of 18.

Speakers also discussed challenges in the developed world, with Belgium’s delegate saying that an ageing population, in addition to presenting new challenges in sustaining social security, had raised the question of how best to embrace migrants to enhance demographic dividend. 

Echoing the sentiment expressed by the keynote speaker, the representative of the United States reiterated that the demographic shift had occurred because “we are saving lives” and added that “now is the time to harness this change for everyone’s benefit”. 

Also speaking today was the representative of Brazil, Australia, Panama, Denmark, Cote d’Ivoire, Sri Lanka, Canada, Uruguay, Switzerland, Cuba, Moldova, and Iran.

The Commission will reconvene on Wednesday, 5 April, at 10 a.m. to continue its general debate.

General Debate

EZE DURUIHEOMA, Chairman of the National Population Commission of Nigeria, associating himself with the “Group of 77” developing countries and China, and the statement to be delivered by the African Group, said his country’s population — the largest in Africa — was relatively young and growing rapidly.  More than 40 per cent of all Nigerians were under age 15.  Half of the female population was in the reproductive years and only 3 per cent of the population constituted people aged 65 and over.  Fertility remained at an average of six children per women, he added.  While such a young population presented many challenges, it also provided a huge opportunity to reap demographic dividends. 

Nigeria would continue to invest heavily in the creation of decent jobs, particularly for young people, he continued, underscoring the Government’s intention to also invest in education and modern agriculture, and combat desertification.  Underscoring the critical role of accurate data in development planning, he called corruption the antithesis of development and urged combating the illicit flow of funds and goods.  For its part, the international community had a role to play in helping Nigeria implement appropriate economic reforms and initiatives focused on fighting poverty.  Women’s participation was also a prerequisite to economic growth. 

MAURO VIEIRA (Brazil) said that changes in population age structures affected all aspects of sustainable development, including urbanization processes, migration flows, environmental impacts and access to health as well as sexual reproductive health and rights.  Underscoring the need to consider various forms of discrimination and violence affecting older persons, he noted Brazil’s policies aimed at protecting older people and reinforcing their right to health, dignity and well-being.  On the other hand, young people should not be considered as mere resources for the promotion of economic development.  Discussions should focus on empowering, protecting and promoting their rights, taking into account barriers they encounter in the labour market.  In order to address the hurdles faced by groups in special situations, data must be disaggregated by gender, age, race, ethnicity, migratory status, disability and geographic location. 

GILLIAN BIRD (Australia) said her country’s population was growing by one person every one minute and 22 seconds.  Australia believed that human rights were universal, indivisible and applicable across all facets of society.  By promoting those principles Governments could empower all individuals to maximize their contributions to society.  Gender equality and woman’s economic empowerment was a key issue for her country.  Australia was committed to the protection and promotion of sexual and reproductive rights.  Access to family planning was critical for women’s empowerment, gender equality and reducing child and maternal mortality.  Ensuring access to reproductive health care was of particular importance in crisis situations.  To benefit from the demographic dividend, young people must be provided with an environment that enabled the full realization of their rights and capabilities.  Such investments could have a lifelong effect and benefit societies as a whole.

LAURA ELENA FLORES HERRERA (Panama), associating herself with statements of the Group of 77 and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), said her country was in the middle of the demographic transition process.  Nevertheless, portions of Panamanian society continued to experience various levels of inequality.  The demographic transition had changed the profile of the country, affecting growth and the structure of the population, which in turn impacted each of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.  Currently, the size of the population was increasing due to migration, which must be seen as a phenomenon that had wide-ranging impacts, including an increase in poverty and inequality, as well as a slowing of the demographic transition with regard to ageing.  Only with reliable data could there be public policies that were well-focused.  Institutions must be improved, strengthened and properly coordinated to ensure the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

STEFANIE AMADEO (United States) said knowledge, resource and technological capabilities had grown significantly in recent years.  Over the last half century, society structures had occurred because “we are saving lives”.  Child mortality had decreased significantly.  “Now is the time to harness this change for everyone’s benefit,” she urged, underscoring the need to work with policymakers, civil society and international organizations to enable all countries to live up to their potential.  Investing in girls and women as well as ensuring reproductive health and voluntary family planning programmes was vital.  Countries unable to turn a demographic transition into a demographic dividend risked a stable future, she added, stressing that sustainable development policies that took into account demographic changes were crucial to collective global security.  Ageing societies presented as many social, political, and economic challenges as did booming young populations.  Stressing the need to combat discrimination and maintain quality of life for older persons, she said data disaggregated by age and sex was vital as countries prepared to guide their populations through demographic changes.  Open, new and usable data must inform decision-making to ensure healthy lives for all. 

IB PETERSEN (Denmark) said that access to safe abortion and post-abortion care was critical as far too many girls and women died from unsafe abortion practices.  Building on the evidence found in the Secretary-General’s report, it would be crucial to turn the perspective away from seeing a rapidly changing global demographic as merely a challenge.  Harnessing benefits would require sound investments in social and public policy, universal access to sexual and reproductive rights, and ensuring decent employment for young people.  Without such investments, the potential of individuals, communities and societies could be lost.  Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized was as relevant today as it was in 1994, he continued, reaffirming Denmark’s commitment to the 2030 Agenda, “leaving no one behind”, and continuing to allocate 0.7 per cent of its gross national income to official development assistance (ODA).

LIMIA ABDELGHAFAR KHALAFALLA AHMED (Sudan) associating herself with the statements of the Group of 77 and the Arab Group, as well as the statement to be made by the African Group, recalled that Sudan was witnessing a demographic shift due to changes in population dynamics brought on by reductions in birth and mortality rates.  Those population shifts required new policies, as well as national and local programmes, aligned with the implementation of Agenda 2030.  Sudan recognized the importance of that transition and had adopted policies leading to continued economic growth and an increase in gross domestic product (GDP), as well as new job opportunities.  Her country had increased investment in human capital and adopted health policies to mainstream the availability of primary health care and combat diseases, while also improving reproductive health services.  Free treatment and immunizations were offered to all children under the age of five.  Sudan had also focused on the development of human capacities by expanding technological and vocational education.  Sudan was preparing for its upcoming sixth census in 2018, which was of significance as it would be the first since the separation of South Sudan from Sudan, which had resulted in a new demographic reality.

PRINCESS TSANDZILE DLAMINI, Minister for Home Affairs of Swaziland, noted that her country was experiencing a demographic transition, characterized by a youthful population.  Approximately 40 per cent of the population was under the age of 15, and, overall, 52 per cent of the population was under the age of 20.  The country was experiencing a declining fertility rate, which had resulted in changes in the population age structure.  That demographic transition had opened a window of opportunity for economic growth and poverty reduction for Swaziland, particularly due to the decreasing ratio of dependents to the working-age population.  Nevertheless, the youth of Swaziland faced challenges with regard to early sexual activity, HIV infections, early marriage, sexual abuse, substance abuse, high unemployment and teen pregnancy, among others.  In that context, her Government was fully aware of the critical importance of investing in young people, across all economic sectors.

CHARLES THEMBANI NTWAAGAE (Botswana) said his country was experiencing a decline in fertility and mortality, higher life expectancy and an increase in the economically active population.  Factors that led to the decline of Botswana’s fertility rate included a comprehensive family planning programme, improved child survival, and increased female education and participation in the labour force.  Botswana continued to face challenges, including high youth unemployment as well as inadequately skilled human capital.  In addition, the national economy was too reliant on the diamond industry, he continued, stressing the need to diversify the economy and develop the private sector.  The Government had enacted programmes aimed at promoting citizen entrepreneurship and agricultural development. 

MARC PECSTEEN DE BUYTSWERVE (Belgium), associating himself with the European Union, said his country’s growing ageing population presented new challenges in sustaining social security.  Belgium was also presented with the question of how to best embrace migrants as population growth did not itself guarantee demographic dividends.  Access to reproductive health services and family planning, and quality education and jobs was vital.  Expressing support for the 2030 Agenda, particularly elements regarding female empowerment, he said women and girls throughout the world should have the right to decide if, when, and with whom they wanted to have children.  Demographic analysis and timely data would be helpful to shape demographic policy. 

CLAUDE STANISLAS BOUAH-KAMON (Côte d’Ivoire) said that his country strove to become an emerging economy by 2020, to enable it to be a beacon for the rest of the African subregion.  A number of challenges remained however, particularly regarding the country’s population due to Côte d’Ivoire’s high birth rate of an average of five children per woman.  In 1960, the population was about 4 million, although by 2014 it had surged to 23 million, a six-fold increase.  Côte d’Ivoire had a significant number of young people and 16 per cent of the population was under the age of five.  Eighty per cent were under the age of 35, which resulted in a high unemployment rate.  Despite years of crises, Côte d’Ivoire had made significant efforts to bolster economic growth, while also living up to its national and international commitments on population and development.  In 2015, the country had put in place a new population policy through the prism of the demographic dividend aimed at, in part, decent jobs for young people.

AMRITH ROHAN PERERA (Sri Lanka) noted that the country was currently experiencing a “demographic bulge” with a significantly larger working-age population than children and elderly.  However, the dividend from that dynamic would not occur for quite some time, as the percentage of the population between 15 and 29 years of age was currently declining.  By 2041, elderly persons would comprise 25 per cent of the population.  His country had traditionally placed high emphasis on social welfare and had implemented a State-sponsored targeted welfare programme to support the poorest portions of the population.  One of the key challenges was the country’s large informal employment sector, as well as its low female labour force participation and high youth unemployment rate.

MARC-ANDRÉ BLANCHARD (Canada) said that the achievement of full human potential would not be possible without addressing discrimination, violence, and continued human rights violations faced by women and girls.  It was imperative that women and girls, particularly adolescents, were able to make decisions free from coercion, violence and discrimination.  Empowered women could choose where they work and collect more household savings for old age, which would benefit both households and national economies.  When women and girls were valued, well nourished, healthy and educated, they become empowered to contribute to the development of their communities.  Through its efforts to increase access to quality education, supporting skills development and working to address barriers girls faced in accessing education, Canada was helping to create sustainable communities.

ELBIO ROSSELLI (Uruguay), associating himself with the Group of 77 and CELAC, said a comprehensive health system in his country guaranteed universal and equitable access to reproductive health for all citizens.  Both the public and private health sectors guaranteed free access to contraception.  Meanwhile, sex education was presented as an imperative and cross-cutting issue.  He outlined legislation guaranteeing the right to gender identity, abortion and marriage equality.  Maternal mortality in Uruguay continued to drop and it was the lowest in Latin America and Caribbean.  Living with diversity meant generating the necessary space for debate.  Eliminating discrimination was critical for sustainable development.

NECTON D. MHURA (Malawi), associating himself with the Group of 77 and the statement to be made by the African Group, underscored the importance of inclusive policies that worked for all and in solidarity with the United Nations.  For the Sustainable Development Goals to succeed, they must respond to the local context through capacity-building, awareness and education initiatives.  Africa, and in particular sub-Saharan Africa, was projected to host 19 per cent of the world’s young people by 2020 and 34 per cent by 2050.  As such, the President had introduced community technical colleges in rural areas.  More broadly, population experiences reflected different circumstances.  Data was essential to address diverse population experiences, he said, calling health and education the backbone of productivity.  Malawi also had established a minimum marriage age of 18 so that girls could gain education, maturity and choice.

Mr. SCHWYN (Switzerland), describing his country’s efforts to prepare for a “four-generation society”, said demographic changes must be taken into account in the planning, management and financing of education, social security, health and labour systems.  Policy should focus on approaches that harnessed the potential of each generation and strengthened intergenerational links.  Noting that each age structure would have specific requirements — from education for young people to retirement pensions for older adults — he emphasized the particular need to provide youth-friendly HIV and sexual and reproductive health services and education.  In that regard, he spotlighted the “Safeguard Young People Programme” partnership between the Swiss Government and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which also worked closely with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to empower young people and promote economies of scale.

JUAN CARLOS ALFONSO FRAGA (Cuba), associating himself with the statements of the Group of 77 and CELAC, said that despite external challenges, Cuba was a demographically developed country and experiencing an advanced demographic transition.  Cuba had low levels of maternal and infant mortality.  The population was ageing.  Twenty per cent of Cubans were elderly and by 2030 that figure would rise to 33 per cent.  Due to policies and social benefits that were universal, free and systematic, Cuba was high on the human development scale, and had enjoyed significant achievements in education and health.  The Government had pursued principles that were not only noteworthy, but were also pre-requisites for achieving the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.  Cuba reaffirmed its commitment to implementing measures towards achieving the Programme of Action adopted at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo and called upon the rest of the world to do the same.

AUXILIA B. PONGA (Zambia), associating herself with the statement of the Group of 77 and the statement to be made by the African Group, said that her country was in its second stage of demographic transition, with a high fertility rate, despite the widespread use of modern contraceptives among married women.  The country’s mortality rate was declining, although it still remained relatively high.  The population was still quite young and its age structure had remained stagnant over the last several years.  Young people comprised more than 45 per cent of persons aged 15 and younger.  A large proportion of people were dependent on the small population that was gainfully employed.  Moving forward the country hoped to leverage its youthful population by pursing integrative policies and programme prioritizing investments in economic, social and demographic factors, as outlined in the Seventh National Development Plan.

VLAD LUPAN (Republic of Moldova) said women represented more than 60 per cent of the population over the age of 60, which meant that designing policies, services and laws emphasizing gender was a key factor in the Republic of Moldova’s population development agenda.  The Government had adopted a new Strategy for Gender Equality for 2017-2021, which provided for gender-sensitive budgeting and the establishment of benchmarks in the areas of agriculture, health, education and labour.  In cooperation with development partners, the Government was working to strengthen the capacities for socioeconomic data collection and dissemination by harmonizing national statistics mechanisms with international standards and by integrating gender equality and human rights-based approaches.

GHOLAMALI KHOSHROO (Iran), associating himself with the Group of 77 and China, said that while national Governments had the primary responsibility for their countries’ development, international cooperation was vital in ensuring access to markets, technology, and certain medicines.  National ownership and leadership was central to formulating national policy to address the demographic transition.  Iran, having undergone tremendous changes in its population dynamism in the last 40 years, was heading towards an ageing population.  Currently, over 8 per cent of the country’s 80 million people were older than 65 while over 50 per cent was between 15 to 29 years of age.  By 2025, Iran’s elderly would comprise 12 per cent of the population.  To plan ahead, the Government was committed to intensifying efforts to provide decent living conditions for everyone, recognize family as a priority of social development, and empower women.

Keynote Address

RANIA ANTONOPOULOS, Alternate Minister for Labour of Greece, delivering a keynote address on the “Changes in age structure and sustainable development in ageing societies”, said the data was in and the world was indeed living in a time of ageing.  With declining fertility and mortality rates, the long-term transformation in many ways was positive.  Rising longevity should be celebrated. “These are signs of success and of doing things right for the majority of the population,” she said.  However, while the world was witnessing a global rise in the working age population, the labour force was shrinking in some parts of the world.

The share of the working age population was projected to remain stable or decrease in most regions, but increase in Africa, which had a much younger population, she said.  While countries with much younger populations had the opportunity to boost their labour force and therefore economies, she warned that a growing young population could also be an economic burden and cause unrest and even conflict.  The Sustainable Development Goals set forth ways to address such challenges.

In Europe, North America and Japan, the working age population was getting older, with an increasing number of working people aged 50 and older, she continued.  Those regions were forced to now confront the challenge of providing pensions and health care for older workers.  Increased life expectancy had provided the opportunity to increase the statutory retirement age and boost contributions to pension funds.  To deal with an ageing working population, developed countries would have to adopt policies that ensured safe migration.  Lower fertility also enabled greater investment in children’s education and skills development, which in time would raise labour productivity and boost economic growth.  Longevity often also spurred more savings for retirement.  “This is the hope,” she continued, underscoring that the conditions required for such healthy growth were not always being met. 

Timely investments in jobs would help harness the potential of young people, she said, stressing that conditions must be met to ensure that the 200 million unemployed people worldwide — 37 per cent of whom were between the ages of 15 and 24 — would gradually re-join the labour force.  In Europe, where roughly 18 to 20 million people were unemployed, distribution of income, the prudent stabilization of policies and observance of fiscal rules had the potential to halve the unemployment rate.  Lack of coordination between economic and social policy was detrimental to growth and inclusion.  Fear that had surfaced recently was driving the call for restricting public spending and investment.

To plan ahead, it would be vital to decipher the ratio of dependent older persons to the ratio of productive labour market participants, she said.  However, it was important to bear in mind that not all persons above 65 were dependent and not all working age persons were economically active.  On the gender gap, she said that addressing differences must be a priority in all economies, including advanced and ageing ones.  Transitioning women from unpaid care work into the formal paid labour market had immense potential to boost economic growth and ensure that women could take care of themselves and contribute to their communities, including beyond retirement.

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