The Demographic Challenge: From One “Terrifying Prospect” To Another

None of the governments which have been in power have given due consideration to all the implications of the demographic challenge for the future development prospects of the country

This year they are 12,000 compared to last year’s 13,000. And a generation ago there were around 35,000 kids joining primary schools at the beginning of the year. Taking cognizance of these statistics, one is left wondering what is more shocking: is it the sheer numbers themselves or the total indifference in which they are made public every year. Considering that under a no-change scenario, only about 15% to 20% of those who join the “education system” (admitting that system is the appropriate word to describe the prevailing structures, processes and contents) will actually end up with a university degree, one should easily gauge the depth of the crisis which awaits the country under such a scenario. Although education policy will remain a major plank among the many considerations for solving the challenges posed by this catastrophe waiting to happen, the implications are much more far reaching and complex.

We have indeed come a long way from the times when economic experts predicted a Malthusian catastrophe as the inevitable sorry plight for Mauritius: an exponential rate of population growth which would largely outgrow our ability to produce the requisite resources to ensure a decent living for the people. Indeed in the now infamous report by Professor James Meade presented to the Governor in 1961, the author concludes that the “demographic revolution” could see a rise in population from “its present 600,000 to 3,000,000 by the end of the century” and that “this is a truly terrifying prospect.” On the basis of such predictions, the author reaches the following foreboding conclusion: “If the population continues to increase there is a real danger not merely that the standard of living will not rise but that it will actually decline.”

Nearly sixty years later, following what would have been one of the most successful population control programmes on record in developing countries (too successful?) in the 1960s coupled with the falling rate of births which usually accompanies industrialization and a general improvement in standard of living (1980s), the country is presently facing the double whammy of a greying population and what experts in demography predict would be an actual fall in population as we approach 2050. We now face a situation in which, to paraphrase Prof Meade, the “terrifying prospect” that “if the population continues to decrease there is a real danger not merely that the standard of living will not rise but that it will actually decline.”

The promptness and effectiveness with which the government of the day responded to the recommendations of the Meade Report and acted on avoiding the “terrifying prospect” of exponential population growth at a time when they had neither the kind of resources nor the communication technology which is available today is commendable. It is ample proof that “political will” and determination can succeed in turning around even the worst possible scenarios.

Unfortunately, looking at what has been happening in Mauritius over the past decades, one is inclined to conclude that none of the governments which have been in power have given due consideration to all the implications of this demographic challenge for the future development prospects of the country. Apart from the concerns expressed around its impact on future pension funding, there is generally speaking very little thinking as regards all the other socio-economic consequences of such drastic falls in birth rate and its implications in terms of future policy orientations.

First and foremost among these considerations are the issues related to education and skills development. A country facing such a trend can ill afford to lay to waste its “human resources” and should therefore relentlessly focus on giving a fair chance to each and every one of its children to develop her abilities and talents.

The general thrust of the education system since Independence has been to ensure a minimum (literacy) education to the largest numbers while ensuring the simultaneous formation of a small fairly to highly educated elite. This could have been justified by the resource constraints and the low level of economic development at the pre-industrialization and plantation economy era. The present demographic configuration, the need to master the rapid technological revolutions of IT and automation as well as the new status of the country as an aspiring high-income economy, all impose upon us a radical change in approach.

The new educational policy should endeavour to provide each one of the constantly declining numbers of young Mauritians with the intellectual tools to add maximum value to the best of his abilities for the socio-economic progress of the country. This shift of emphasis from providing minimum education to providing high levels of education and training to the largest numbers calls for a sweeping change in the perspectives of politicians and policy-makers, unconstrained by the prejudices of past practices and mental frameworks.

Having said the above the sad truth is that the latest trends, accelerating since the beginning of this century, towards the “privatization” of education and the resulting “ghettoization” of public institutions, largely deserted by the middle and upper classes, is pointing to the opposite direction.

Public education, which has been one of the most prominent contributors to economic development and the driver of social mobility over more than a century, has gradually lost these essential functions leading to an accentuation of social and economic inequality. The emerging model of cultivation of a small elite in mostly private educational institutions and the exclusion of the larger numbers alienated from the new technology-driven environment is an unsustainable one which bodes the worse for the country if remedial measures are not taken urgently.

The second policy option, which needs serious consideration in the drive to mitigate the worst aspects of the demographic challenge, is of course the whole range of issues regarding the “opening of the country to foreigners.” Importation of manual labour and opening up to foreign professionals constitute two different aspects of the issue which need to be considered on their own merits. The principal consideration in both cases would turn around the ring-fencing of such “immigration” through well-designed policy frameworks so as to avoid or mitigate its social and economic impact on the rest of the economy. In the absence of such clear and well defined policies, the present “on” and “off” approach with its total lack of clarity and security for all parties involved will continue to mar one of the critical factors of success of our ambition to become a regional economic player with a high-income economy.

The Prime Minister having announced his intention to go ahead with a Cabinet reshuffle in the coming months if not weeks, it would be highly desirable that he should seriously consider the setting up of a new Ministry of Economic Planning and Development – by whatever name it may be called. It is the only kind of institution which can take enough distance from the day to day policy making of different ministries, to consider the longer term aspects of the challenges facing the country, namely the issues related to the demographic challenge.

Rajiv Servansingh

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published.