Experts debate whether having more children in a family will improve the economy or damage it in the long run
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Last month the Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Sar Kheng, encouraged Cambodians to double the country’s population by having five children each.
The minister’s comments came at a ground-breaking ceremony for a new temple in Prey Veng province, but some argue they have little consideration for the economic impact such rapid population growth would have.
Whether Kheng’s comments were meant as directives for would-be parents or merely the rhetoric of politics remains unclear, but in suggesting “the more children, the better” critics say there appears to be a divorce between reality and his statement.
Kheng addressed concerns about the size of families at the ceremonial release of the provisional population total on Wednesday and claims that “This government or the next government must pay more attention to changes in demographics, but if you are concerned, you don’t understand the reality of rural people and their lives – I have nine siblings, my parents were farmers and they managed to feed us. Parents must produce the children needed to help create and support the national infrastructure.” He did note that too many children would be bad, but went on to say that five or six would suffice.Global political figures often make such comments in the media and, while there’s no way to know how many people believe these comments or act upon them, certainly in this time of global transformation there is a growing need for declarations based on fact, rather than controversial opinion.
In line with Asian Development Bank predictions, the nation’s economic growth looks set to continue to flourish at around seven percent, but a sudden surge in economically dependent children would, according to some experts, threaten that promising level of development.
“Many countries have adopted – in rhetoric and/or in practice – pro-natalist policies, usually linked to ideas of national ‘strength’,” notes Sean Fox, a senior lecturer on global development at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. Fox, who has worked extensively on the links between demography and economic growth, estimates that such a rapid increase in Cambodia’s population could be problematic.
“Increasing the number of children decreases the amount families can save and invest in improving their own lives and livelihoods.
“It also means fewer resources can be invested in each child, for example in health, nutrition and education. With more children there is simply less money available for investment, which can be a drag on productivity growth and GDP per capita,” he argues.
Detailing the consequences of a largescale uptick in fertility, Fox goes on to suggest that labour supplies would be restricted, with more innovative, productive women being kept out of the workforce for longer, as well as reducing the percentage of the population of working age Cambodians in tandem with a rising percentage of dependents, whose contributions to economic growth are minimal.
The General Secretariat for Population and Development declined to comment on Kheng’s statement or any assessment of Cambodian demographics.
Kimlong Chheng of the independent think-tank Asian Vision Institute (AVI) says Kheng’s vision of a more populous Cambodia may be ambitious, but notes that there is no official policy or strategy to increase the population.
“Development requires a certain amount of population to provide labour and to serve as a consumer base,” he says.
“It seems quite ambitious, but the government can promote higher population growth rate by offering some attractive benefits and social welfare programmes for those having the second child, third and fourth and so on,” he says.
With an international agenda for sustainability growing in urgency and the impact of global warming becoming more apparent, there is a need to implement greater planning in the use of Cambodia’s resources, says Kimlong.
“Faster population growth will not pose a threat to the natural resources in Cambodia.
“However, there must be a better governance of resources, including land and water, and an innovative approach to sustainable population planning.”
The need to adapt comes at a time where change is already happening within the Kingdom.
Kimlong says young Cambodians’ attitudes towards having children is changing in line with other capitalist economies, where social and economic lives have become more complex, often leaving younger generations the choice between starting a family and saving for the future.
“In the Cambodian context, it will be good for the economy as long as more will enter a productive labour force and join the consumer base, (but) I do not think Cambodia should control the birth rate at all … a family of five children can be a challenge as costs of living continue to rise and social and economic relations in society continue to become increasingly complex,” says Kimlong, who believes that reliable government policies could ease the burdens of a large family.
Cambodia’s fourth census was conducted in March this year–one year behind schedule –following a tumultuous national election that dominated the Kingdom’s political dialogue.
Addressing the crowd assembled at the Phnom Penh Hotel on Wednesday, Kheng explains that the Cambodian government “did not have the support of the development partners” needed to conduct the nationwide census in 2018, but thanked UNFPA, the EU, SIDA and Germany for their support to the 2019 census.
The data collected over 11 days will be analysed with the support of UNICEF and China, with the final report due in the second quarter of 2020. Earlier this week, the Royal Government of Cambodia under the leadership of Ministry of Planning and the National Institute of Statistics Cambodia, supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released preliminary findings from this year’s census.
This saw Cambodia’s population grow modestly to 15,288,489 this year from 13,395,682, reported in the 2008 census, producing an annual average growth of 1.2 percent – a slight decline from the 1998 to 2008 period’s 1.5 percent.
Regionally speaking, Cambodia’s population is still growing faster than those of Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, but is behind Laos and Malaysia.
The figures detailed by this latest census exclude migrants working abroad. According to the Report of Annual General Meeting 2018 from the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training the total number of migrants working abroad amounted to 1,235,993.
This number was further broken down by location, which saw 1,146,685 in Thailand, 49,099 in South Korea, 30,113 in Malaysia, 9,195 in Japan, 831 in Singapore, with just 54 in Hong Kong and 16 in Saudi Arabia.
Another caveat to data presented by the preliminary findings is that the numbers may have changed when the full report is published next year.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) representative in Cambodia Rizvina de Alwis is optimistic about the present trend. She says: “Cambodia has made impressive strides in setting a clear and firm tone in its development approach and ensuring development gains from reducing maternal and child mortality to skilled birth attendance to expanding access to voluntary family planning methods [that] are achieved, maintained and capitalised on to ensure Cambodia continues to benefit from its demographic dividend.”
De Alwis explains that the UN Population Division expects Cambodia’s population to hit 18 million by 2030 and 21 million by 2050.
“The main determinant of these population changes is the decline in fertility, which fell from a total fertility rate of 6.4 children per woman in the 1980s to 2.5 during 2015-2020. It is expected to decline to 2.1 children per woman in 2035-2040,” she says.
This is not in line with Kheng’s apparent desire for a swift doubling of the Kingdom’s population, but de Alwis is quick to point out that pro-natalist policies would signal a policy shift and may not have the desired impact in terms of economic or social development.
De Alwis says: “Depending on the context, a rapid and substantial population growth may have various implications but generally does not seem to be favourable to economic development, which appears to have benefited more from rights-based policies.”
However, de Alwis suggests that governments can take more modest measures to influence demographic change in manners that would not drastically affect the national economy.
She cites the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) to which Cambodia committed, ensuring the rights of citizens to determine for themselves whether or when to start a family.
The UNFPA Cambodia representative says that, currently, “Cambodia’s population policies are based on the ICPD principles of rights and choice, acknowledging that in the long run the various factors of fertility, mortality and migration will establish a balance that allows a decent life for all.”