Posts Tagged ‘Population’

On Sustainability

January 31, 2019

By Anjum Altaf

The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides.

At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths.

Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed?

Many of the writers refer to a falling water table and extrapolate it to imply that cities would die for lack of water. Add to this the inane statement that very soon water would start selling at the price of gold.

Why should we place any credence in such claims? There are cities in the desert like Phoenix and Riyadh that continue to source water. It also stands to reason that as water becomes scarce its price would rise forcing both a curtailing of demand and innovations in supply. In all probability, almost all used water would be recycled and made fit for drinking when conditions warrant. This is already happening in many cities including Singapore, a small island serving a sizeable population.

As for those hyperventilating about water at the price of gold, they are of the same ilk as those crying hoarse about Pakistan’s overpopulation being the cause of its poverty. These wiseacres are quite oblivious to their next-door neighbour with six times the population yet growing at twice Pakistan’s rate for the last quarter of a century and now spoken of as an emerging global power. Nor have they ever reflected on the fact that Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’. The population babble serves only as a convenient smokescreen to camouflage a history of atrocious self-serving governance.

Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water and so its price can never rise above that of desalinated water plus the cost of transporting it to wherever it is needed. And there is no reason that water cannot be transported over long distances. If an oil pipeline can run from Tajikistan all the way to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, surely so can a water pipeline from Gwadar to Lahore. Of course, the water would be more expensive than it is now but it would be nowhere near the price of gold. The price would even decline over time with the increasing use of solar energy. Once again, many cities already use desalinated water. In fact there was once a plan for DHA Karachi to set up its own plant but like most schemes in Pakistan that too was most likely the victim of a scam.        

The bottom line is that we would be much better off focusing on concrete issues — like ensuring that the water presently supplied is clean — instead of hand-waving about vague and poorly thought through spectres of sustainability. It is undoubtedly true that cities in South Asia are poorly managed and can do with a great deal of improvement but poor management is nowhere the same thing as unsustainability.

But what intrigues me much more is our amazingly selective use of the concept of sustainability. While everyone and their aunts are free to pontificate about the sustainability of cities, and of the world for that matter, we are in a very different ballgame if we shift the discussion to the level of countries when there is no conceptual difference except that of scale. If we can talk of the sustainability of Lahore and be considered enlightened citizens, why do we suddenly become anti-national traitors if we talk of the sustainability of Pakistan?

Consider that there are many more credible reasons to talk of the latter. The Pakistan that was created in 1947 did not prove sustainable and collapsed within 25 years. Perhaps this might have been avoided had we been allowed to freely discuss the issues of its sustainability. Are we continuing the folly by stifling discussion given all the issues in Balochistan along with those of rising fundamentalism, intolerance and populism?

What this suggests is that the concept of sustainability is a highly politicised one. We are free to shout it ad nauseum where it makes no difference but whisper it at our own risk when it threatens the interests of the powers that be.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 30, 2019 and is being reproduced here with the author’s permission.


Against Research

July 29, 2010

By Anjum Altaf

I write this article to question the value of research, a seemingly contradictory position for one trained as a researcher. Nevertheless, I shall argue the case because I feel many of our problems stem not from a lack of new knowledge but from an inability to translate existing knowledge into action. We are unable to convince decision-makers to act or voters to mobilise on the basis of available knowledge. To put my training to some use I shall explore the reasons for this failure which is both important and imperfectly understood.

Take poverty as an example. If we pile up all the reports that have been compiled on the causes of poverty in the country we would be well on the way to reaching the top of Minar-e-Pakistan. Yet agencies continue commissioning new studies year after year. I heard recently of a planned study on the drivers of rural poverty in Pakistan. The only variation I could fathom was the replacement of the word ‘causes’ by the more trendy ‘drivers’. On the other side, there is not a single study on why all the knowledge accumulated through previous studies has not been translated into action while poverty continues to increase. Nor is there interest in any such study. So, what’s going on?

First of all this supply of research is in response to demands that originate primarily outside Pakistan. International agencies rightly require every new loan or project to be based on current information, the gathering of which becomes the core of new research studies. Their purpose is served when the new loans or projects are signed off. It is not really the mandate of the international agencies to see to it that the research findings feed into policymaking within Pakistan. That should be the responsibility of the citizens of the country.

But there is much less demand for research from within Pakistan. The problems confronting the majority of the citizens are so basic that their solutions do not call for new knowledge. It is silly to determine yet again that x per cent of the population lack clean water and y per cent do not have access to safe sanitation. These facts have been known for years.

What is more relevant is to determine why these problems remain unresolved when their solutions do not require any kind of rocket science. Five thousand years ago there was a higher standard of service in Mohenjodaro. The same argument can be made for problems of education, housing and health.

At the same time decision-makers, barring the odd exception, are not used to making policy on the basis of systematic research nor are there institutional mechanisms that would call for discussion on the research underlying policy making. In fact, the need for research is hardly felt. Decision-makers seem to believe that they know all that is necessary to know and what they don’t know is not worth knowing.

To go back to poverty again, it is revealing how often eminent dignitaries inaugurate conferences by vehemently asserting that overpopulation is the cause of our poverty. It does not need any new research, only an observant eye to see China galloping ahead at over seven per cent year after year with a population over one billion and India beginning to accelerate with an equally large population.

At the same time there are numerous countries with very low populations and population densities mired in worse poverty than Pakistan. Much available research shows no obvious correlation between poverty and population or population density which would be a much more sensible indicator to use.

If decision-makers are so impervious to available knowledge what is the point of carrying out new research? The question we have to ask is why does research have so little impact and what do we have to do to change the situation? This would be the kind of indigenous research driven by our own concrete realities and much more relevant to our future.

We face a two-sided problem. On one side we have the majority of our population which is unfamiliar with the language in which most research questions are posed and findings reported. On the other side we have decision-makers who feel they already know what there is to know. In our oral culture, lukewarm to the written word, the worldview of both is shaped by popular wisdom which is renewed very, very slowly. That poverty is caused by overpopulation was the popular wisdom of almost fifty years ago. It still pervades the thinking of influential people today who have not come across all the subsequent research or opened their eyes to observations that prove the theory false.

What researchers have to do is to allocate more effort to ensuring that available knowledge permeates popular wisdom much more effectively and helps update it much more rapidly. This is a challenge unique to our situation and it would not be met by setting up research and policy institutes, publishing journals and holding conferences that are a pale imitation of the research culture of countries where the concrete realities are very different.

I am exaggerating somewhat to make the point that academic research is a particularly blunt instrument for social change in Pakistan. Interested individuals should continue to research to satisfy their curiosities or to prepare for careers in countries where such endeavours yield professional satisfaction. Research is also needed where clear knowledge gaps exist and more so in areas of the hard sciences. Thus, for example, the impacts of new types of chemical pollutants and the breeding of disease-resistant crops remain areas where continuous research is warranted.

But in the social sciences we may have gone beyond the point of diminishing returns and reached a state of habitual mindlessness in researching because that is what we have been trained to do. There needs to be an equal focus on getting the most out of existing knowledge and in making that knowledge matter.

This article was written when the author was a Visiting Fellow at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad. It appeared in the Daily Times, Lahore, in January 2004 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission.


More Numbers on Poverty and Education

October 11, 2008

I met a person the other day; he had educated his servant’s daughter who was now a physician in Los Angeles. “If everyone did that,” he said, “we could take care of the problems of illiteracy and poverty in our country.”

Right or wrong?

Let us see how we can do a very rough back-of-the-envelope calculation to see if the proposition is realistic.

Suppose the population of our South Asian country is 100. (Readers can multiply this by a scale factor to transform the hypothetical example into one that applies to their country. For example, if the population of Bangladesh is 150 million, the scale factor is 1.5 million. Relevant numbers in the example can be multiplied by this factor for the analysis to apply to Bangladesh.)

On average, we know that in South Asia about 25 percent of the population is very poor (below the official poverty line) and another 25 percent is ‘near poor’ (with enough for subsistence but not enough to afford a good education). So that gives us a set 50 people who are poor (from which we will derive the demand for assisted education) and 50 who are not poor (from which we shall derive the supply for assistance in education).

Demand Analysis

We start with a population of 50 poor people. We know that about 40 percent of the population of a South Asian country is comprised of children below the age of 15 years. This reduces our demand pool to 20. Now let us further restrict our need assessment to children between the ages of 5 and 15 and let us assume that this subset is half the size of the set of children below the age of 15. This gives us 10 children whose education requires external assistance. This is our rough estimate of the demand side.

Supply Analysis

We start with a population of 50 non-poor people. Let us assume an average household size of 5. This gives us 10 households in our potential supply pool. Of these we can assume that 6 are not rich enough to afford servants. So we are left with 4 families who are not poor and can afford servants. Now assume that half of these are rich enough to have servants and also have the extra income to afford to spend on educating them. That leaves us with two families. This is our rough estimate of the supply side. 

Matching Demand and Supply

Our rough calculation leaves us with a demand of 10 and a supply of 2. A private household based initiative can take care of 20 percent of the problem. This is significant but not enough to solve the problem of poverty and illiteracy in South Asian countries.

What Have We Done?

Essentially, what we have done is to take a very simplified look at two population distributions. The income distribution tells us the number of poor and rich people in the country. The age distribution tells us the number of people in various age groups. We combine these to arrive at our rough estimates of demand and supply.

A better analysis would use the same two distributions but in a much more careful and sophisticated way.

How the Context Makes a Difference

This analysis was for a country in South Asia and our assumptions reflected that context. The assumptions would be very different if our context had been a country in Scandinavia, for example. We know that both the income distributions and the population pyramids in Scandinavia are radically different from those in South Asia.

A private initiative to take care of the education of poor children could well be feasible in Scandinavia. Of course, as we know, the state has already taken care of the problem there.

Follow up

I would appreciate if readers could check the analysis and let me know if the rough conclusions make sense or not. Let me know if I have made any mistake in the assumptions or calculations.

Readers should also look at the two distributions for various countries and note the essential differences across countries. Comparisons between South Asian and Scandinavian countries should provide much food for thought. Note the key differences and speculate on the main reasons for the differences.

Information on Population Pyramids is available here.

Information on Income Distributions is available here.  Choose a country and then look under Income Distribution. The data show the percentage of total income earned by the richest and poorest sections of the population and also the number of people living below the poverty line.

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Is Overpopulation the Cause of Poverty?

August 21, 2008

There are many people who argue that the biggest problem in South Asia is overpopulation. This assertion has been repeated so often over the years that it has almost become common wisdom. Its adherents include a lot of well-educated individuals and one often hears the argument from government officials as an explanation for the inability to reduce poverty.

There are a number of problems with this simple proposition. First of all, population is not a very useful measure by itself simply because it fails to account for the size of the land in which the population resides. Some countries like Russia have a very large area while others like Singapore have a very small one. Therefore the appropriate indicator to use in order to make valid comparisons is population density (i.e., population per unit of land area).

Using this indicator one would find, for example, that Belgium has a very high population density, Pakistan is in the middle, and Somalia ranks very low. Of these countries, Belgium is not the one with the most difficulties. Nor does Somalia have the fewest. Just looking at population or population density tells us very little about a society’s problems.

Within individual countries we can find similar situations. Take Pakistan, for example. Balochistan has the lowest population density amongst the provinces. But Balochistan is by no means better off than the other provinces because of its low population and population density.

This raises an interesting issue for those who subscribe to the overpopulation hypothesis. Would Balochistan, with all its natural resources and its small population, be much better off if it were a sovereign country by itself? I am sure the believers of the hypothesis would quickly find many arguments to refute the implication of their own assertion. The question would force them to abandon the simple answer and start thinking of the many other factors that actually influence economic and social development.

Consider another interesting situation. When Bangladesh became independent, what remained of Pakistan lost more than half its population and the small part of its land area that was widely believed to have been a drain on the resources of West Pakistan. Did the significant reduction in population and the removal of the resource drain trigger an immediate economic boom in Pakistan? And if not, why not? The simple relationship of population and development fails to provide an answer to the question.

The second point to consider is that even population density is an incomplete measure because all the land in a country is not equally valuable when it comes to supporting its population. Deserts and mountains are of little value in this regard. It is the habitable and cultivable land that matters.

Japan and China both have relatively small endowments of such land while the latter has the largest population in the world. Yet Japan, despite its relative lack of natural resources, is amongst the richest countries in the world. And China has been recording very high economic growth rates for many years lifting millions of its people out of poverty. The simple proposition fails to explain much of what has been going on in these two countries either.

As a matter of fact, one could quite plausibly argue that poverty is not due to overpopulation. Rather, overpopulation could well be a result of poverty. Empirical evidence shows clearly that as households become economically better off the average family size tends to decrease.

In fact, a larger population can even be considered an advantage. Many European countries are actively encouraging their citizens to increase the size of their families. So is Singapore — a very small and densely populated island. Global firms are keen to invest in highly populated countries like India and China because of their large consumer markets.

The issue is obviously not as simple as it seems. The point of these stark and somewhat extreme examples is to stress the need to abandon the simple explanation for the problem of poverty in South Asia. Only then would we be able to debate the real causes and reasons for the slow pace of development.

The belief in overpopulation as the cause of poverty encourages a sense of helplessness because there is no obvious solution. Even if we accept that South Asia is overpopulated what are we going to do with all the people who are already here? We need to think of people as a source of strength and not as a problem. The sensible strategy would be to invest in people to make then as productive as possible in order to promote economic development and reduce poverty. 

Population densities in 1999 (in persons per square kilometer) for the countries mentioned in the article were as follows: Singapore 5,500, Bangladesh 950, Belgium 340, Japan 340, India 340, Pakistan 180, China 135, Somalia 12, Russia 9. Data for all countries is available at:

The following posts examine other commonly advanced reasons for poverty and underdevelopment:

Is Illiteracy a Cause of Poverty?
Is Poverty the Cause of Illiteracy?
Corruption and Development
Faith and Development
Is Faith Necessary for Progress?
Governance and Morality

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