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The tipping point - What can happen with a demographic dividend

25 January 2016

SUSTAINABILITY in anything we do is only achievable if an enabling environment that can support such intentions is created and maintained. In development work, successful advocacy leads to policy development that births activities which must, ultimately, have a positive impact all around.

When it comes to the environment, the phrase "sustainable development" may admittedly and some argue be an oxymoron, begging the question: How can one change a natural state and still claim sustainability?

The dichotomy in humanity's existence means there will always be "the other side of the coin". By simply existing we impact our surrounding including the environment however as human beings, the onus is on us as the species that has wrought havoc on the planet to progress responsibly, always mindful that nature is a web of interconnectedness which requires balance.

Regardless of the sector you work in or the nature of your work, whether you're managing a household, a farm or a multinational company, population and development dynamics have to be core to any activity you're considering or involved it.

The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA's, mandate in sexual and reproductive health and rights, youth, humanitarian, gender equality and reproductive rights, and data are some of the most sensitive of United Nations' mandates. They are however some of the most basic elements in the abstract tapestry of interconnectedness that binds humanity.

Confrontational phrase

It is understandable that a phrase like sexual and reproductive health and rights can be confrontational to groups of people whose world views are primarily formed by culturalism and religiosity. Some consider having frank discussions with young people around sex taboo, as is the propensity to dwell more on myths surrounding family planning or HIV rather than facts.

Our communal silence and disregard for issues core to individuals' personal development, both physically and psychologically, can make us complicit to the invisible tentacles of unsustainable development. Sustainable development is as much about environmental impact as it is about an individual's health status.

A 2013 Ministry of Health report discusses the high prevalence of sexually-transmitted infections (a survey found 29 per cent of pregnant women tested positively for chlamydia infection), a prevalence of multiple partners with low condom-use and the reported adolescent pregnancy rate of 38 live births for every 1000 among 15 to 19-year-olds.

The reality of our health status as articulated by the aforementioned report must broaden our understanding of the progeny of sustainable development. It has to be a bottoms up process - a sick population cannot sustain development, in whatever form.

Sustainable development can be and must be about people first and foremost. Sexual and reproductive health is crucial for inclusive and equal progress in this context. The longer a people allow culturalism and religiosity to dictate silence over issues that are core to an individual's development and thus a country's human resource potential, the longer a country will experience difficulties in achieving cornerstones for inclusive and sustainable progress.

Process of development

In the process of development, countries normally witness a shift to low mortality and fertility. The steps toward creating an enabling environment that lower mortality and fertility presumably begin with individuals who have realised their full potential in academia and are now in the labour market. The individual or couple wish for a family, determining the number of children based on their resources. They are then equipped for their plans with accessibility to information and family planning options.

At an individual level, more disposable income is accrued and finances continuing progress. When this has become a trend en masse, two outcomes are possible; working-age people begin to outnumber dependents (the demographic dividend); and economic growth is inevitable from increased disposable income for both the wage-earner and public coffers.

The disposable income from household level is reflected at national level provides munition for economic boom - employment creation, a rise in productivity and the overall growth of the economy all become inevitable.

The links between fertility and human development (as is between health and education) are reinforced albeit complex. Fertility decline is not a lamentable situation but rather an opportunity for a transition to better livelihoods and healthy economies.

"With a more educated and healthy population, as investments in human capital development increase, countries enjoy a larger proportion of their population being economically active, which can further advance economic growth and development," Dr Laurent Zessler, UNFPA Pacific subregional office director and representative said.

It's not automatic

"It is not an automatic process for countries to arrive at a situation where mortality levels are low and fertility levels are falling and the demographic dividend is achieved but both need the empowerment of the younger generations particularly in terms of their health, education and employment."

The age composition of Fiji's population reflects fertility decline and a high level of emigration. The 0-14 age group comprise 20 per cent, 15-24 17 per cent, 25-59 45 per cent and for 60-year-olds and over, 9 per cent.

Given its economic level and long history of addressing population issues, Fiji's demographic transition has been slow, particularly for the iTaukei population. Efforts to maintain and/or accelerate demographic trends towards lower fertility and mortality rates need to be strengthened.

The key to harnessing the demographic dividend is enabling young people, particularly adolescent girls, to enjoy their human rights and achieve their full potential. Countries must invest in young people's empowerment through education and employment.

UNFPA suggests that for 60 countries right now, the window for a demographic dividend is opening. An enabling environment for such a critical albeit subtle economic growth engine must include recognition that human rights is the cornerstone of development, the importance of data on population size, sex and age structure, and investments in people to ensure they can realise their full potential.

A demographic dividend is not just about a potential economic engine that can accelerate development but it can also be the healthy population base that can guarantee the sustainability the planet demands of us right now. Sustainable development is a realistic agenda, we just need to do it right.