The Demographic Transition and the Demographic Gift in the Middle East and North Africa

As emerging countries move into long-term economic growth and industrialization, their formative transitions typically display a corresponding shift from high mortality and death rates to low mortality and death rates. However, this demographic transition notably has not accompanied the economic development of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Instead, a glacial movement towards demographic stability has occurred in MENA, with only the past two decades witnessing substantive decreases in total fertility rates. With these decreases in fertility have come considerable changes, including a population bulge of youth. Those in this grouping find themselves increasingly disenfranchised politically and unable to attain long-term economic opportunities. Iran, a country of explicitly ‘Revolutionary Islamic’ politics, may provide insight into the demographic policies that could serve in the future as a model for practical natal strategies within the MENA and emerging Islamic framework. The absence of a significant demographic shift and corresponding source of economic growth within MENA must be evaluated from the social, cultural, and economic institutional impediments to successful progress.

While the majority of the developing world moved towards demographic transition in the 1960’s, only in the 1980’s did the MENA region began to experience sustained demographic declines. Up until the 1970’s, many considered MENA demographics isolated and outside the normal trends of population transition, ‘a self-proclaimed bastion of resistance to family change and natural fertilities’ (Courbage 1). Gradually, the ‘homogenous, high-fertility’ MENA region of the 1950’s with a total fertility rate around 7.0 was replaced by a ‘varied, dynamic region experiencing appreciable fertility change’ (Rashad 37). Later marriages, modern contraceptive practices, and inclusion of female rights and participation have been harbingers of a more widespread modernization of attitudes and economic outlooks (Courbage 4). Changes in marriage patterns also contributed to the fertility decline in the early 1980’s and 1990’s (Rashad 5). While the process succeeded on the economic and political fronts, Courbage warns the increasing and emergent influence of Islam on MENA societies may swing these cultures back to more pro-natal attitudes (17). The demographic transition in MENA represents an ‘interrupted process’, experiencing variations due to cyclical economic adjustments, government intervention in natal policy, and the region wide effects of oil shocks and unemployment rates.

Iran: A Model in Demographic Transition

While most countries in the MENA region have seen a persistence of above-average total fertility rates even into the 1990’s, Iran provides a stark example of how a proactive state anti-natal policy can affect total fertility rates. The first attempts at adopting a nation-wide birth control policy began with the creation of the Family Planning Program (FPP) in 1967 by the Imperial Government of Iran (Mehryar 3). The FPP became involved in highly sensitive legislation aimed at raising the age of marriage and curtailing male monopolization on the right of divorce (Mehryar 3). The state also attempted to improve the legal status of women and legalized induced abortion in 1973 (Aghajanian 704). The promotion of the national family planning agenda paralleled attempts by the Iranian state to enhance women politically and economically, including female suffrage, raising the legal age of marriage of women to 18, and encouraging women’s participation in government education, political, and health programs (Aghajanian 709). Combined with a paltry effort to seek approval from religious leadership, the FPP was seen by the populice as a secular effort directly contrary to traditional values of Iranian society (Mehryar 4). Numerically, the performance of the FPP of the Imperial Government was modest: population growth during 1967 to 1977 declined slightly from 3.1 to 2.7 percent and total fertility fell from 7.0 to 6.3 (Mehryar 4).

Ultimately, the rift between the FPP and traditional forces came to a head after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Viewed as inconsistent with the principles of Islam, the Family Protection Law and the FPP were suspended immediately following the revolution, leading to a decade markedly absent of state-sponsored family planning (Aghajanian 705). Leaders of the Islamic Republic showed no interest in population policy. Rather they encouraged early marriage and procreation, emphasizing the role of the female as mother and wife as an Islamic virtue (Aghajanian 713). ‘Strong undercurrents of Islamisation’ reinforced these changes that operated at the regulatory and socio-economic level and which sought to redefine the role of women in the economy and to encourage their retreat into the domestic area (Hakimian 2). The minimum age of marriage for females was lowered to nine years and the government issued new regulations, which dictated the public appearance of women and their clothing (Aghajanian 713).
A tense economic and political arena deeply contributed to the demographic outlook of the Islamic Republic. Following the Iraqi invasion of September 1981, the government imposed a universal rationing program. The program allowed generous coupons, covering a range of consumer goods, to each member of a household (Mehryar 8). Thus, the rationing system created an economic incentive for larger families in order to enjoy the increased rations allocated to them. This economic incentive and national political desires for a higher birthrate to contribute to the ’20 million man army’ of Iran encouraged increased fertility as a part of the general war effort. Indeed, the political, sociological, and psychological environment following the Iraqi invasion ‘may have been one of the major factors that transferred the issue of a large population and its rapid growth into a matter of comparative advantage rather than liability’ (Mehryar 8). When the 1986 Iranian census showed population had grown at a rate of 3.9 percent per year since 1976, Prime Minister Mir-Hossein Moosavi ‘openly hailed the enormous growth as a God sent gift’ (Mehryar 9).

After the end of Iran-Iraqi hostilities and the acceptance of the grave implications of the 1986 census by departments of the Iranian government, the Islamic Republic formally accepted the first elements of a national family planning policy in 1989. The government authorized the Ministry of Health and Medical Education to make free family planning services available to all married couples and to promote small family sizes (Mehryar 11). Following this mandate, the FPP was restarted in December 1989 and given three significant objectives: to encourage three to four years between pregnancies; to discourage pregnancy for woman younger than 18 and older than 35; and to limit family size to three children (Mehryar 12). This alteration in policy was buttressed by the 1993 Family Planning Bill, which removed economic incentives for high fertility and large families and created the legal framework for population control policy (Mehryar 13). The bill also required the addition of a population and family planning course to the official curriculum of all university departments (Mehryar 13). Following the 1994 population conference in Cairo, the government gave special consideration to educating adolescent girls through education, information, and premarital counseling and the promotion of healthy sexual relations within marital unions (Mehryar 15).

The results of the policy shift are clear and evident: from a total fertility rate of 7.2 in 1970, 5.6 in 1985, and 4.8 percent in 1990, Iran’s total fertility fell to a MENA region low of 2.0 in 2004 (Roudi-Fahimi 1). Women’s average age at first marriage increased from 19.7 in 1976 to 22.4 in 1996 (Roudi-Fahimi 1). By 1992, two-thirds of married women aged 15-49 were practicing some form of contraception, almost twice as high as the 1977 contraceptive prevalence rates of 37 percent (Mehryar 13). Most importantly, Iran was able to extend the population program successfully to the rural areas, where other MENA countries often lack control and influence. The urban-rural gap of use of modern contraceptives shrank from 250 percent in 1977, to 23 percent in 1992, and to only 12 percent in 1997 (Mehryar 14. The Ministry of Health and Medical Education reached out through a rural health network of 16,000 health houses covering 95 percent of the rural population. The network provided 91 percent of all family planning services in rural areas (Roudi-Fahimi 5). As of 2002, Iran was the only MENA country to have a state-sponsored condom factory. The factory’s largest customer, moreover, was the Iranian Ministry of Health, which distributed the condoms for free (Muir 1).

Government policy encouraged education and familiarity with modern contraceptive methods. Iran is thought to be the only country in the world where engaged couples cannot get a marriage license unless they show that they have attended contraception classes (Muir 2). Improvements in female education have helped to decrease fertility rates and increased proper use of modern contraceptives. From 1976 to 1996, the percentage of rural women who were literate increased from 17 to 62 percent and by 2000, more women than men entered universities (Roudi-Fahimi 7). The changes in Iran corroborate that committed policy and financial support, easily available planning services, and investment in health infrastructure and human development can induce and sustain rapid shifts in the demographic transition (Roudi-Fahimi 7, 8). In the words of the director of the United Nations Population Fund Mohammad Moslehuddin, “Developed countries took 35 to 40 years to reach low birth rate levels, but Iran took just a little bit more than a decade. That’s obviously unusual, unprecedented and exemplary in the Islamic context. Other developing countries – in particular, the Muslim developing countries of the world – should learn from the successful experience of the Islamic Republic” (Muir 3).

The Youth Bulge: An Economic and Demographic Challenge

While the region as a whole did not see decreases as significant or steep as Iran’s, the formulation of coherent and proactive natal policies in the MENA regions have been unaccompanied by sustained economic growth through the demographic dividend. The regional demographic transformation has meant that MENA countries currently are experiencing a population imbalance with a significant population of people born in the 1980’s, i.e., an abundance of working age young adults. Within the framework of the demographic transition, the demographic gift occurs when a larger share of the population is economically active – between the ages of 15 to 64 – therefore raising the labor force per capita, capital accumulation, and GDP per capita (Williamson 21). The youth population proportion is approximately 20 percent or higher in much of the MENA region with one in every three people in the region between the ages of 10 and 24 (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 1, 15). On average, MENA’s labor markets have had to absorb 30 million more adults of working age (Williamson 19).

This regional transformation presents an opportunity for economic growth fueled by a young and relatively large labor force. At the same time situation challenges ‘governments to prepare these young people for meaningful participation in society’ (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 15). A demographic bonus is attainable only when a ‘large young population is healthy, educated, trained’, and can be absorbed into the market economy (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 16). Indeed, labor economists expressed concern in the 1980’s and 1990’s about rapid labor force growth at a time ‘when the region’s labor markets were already had high levels of unemployment and limited work opportunities outside the public sector’ (Williamson 17). While investment and improvement in education has been considerable in the MENA region, it has not been complemented by better opportunities for gainful employment (Rashad 47). Notably, MENA shows demographic effects significantly below the Asian countries and only above those in Africa (Williamson 21). High unemployment, a mismatch of jobs and skill levels, excessive entitlements, political instability, and the lack of progress among social institutions have all led to the inability of the youth bulge to spur economic growth (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 3).

The Persistence of Gender Normatives and Their Economic Consequences

Contrary to the neoclassical formulation, the introduction of liberalization in the MENA economies has had minimal effect on gender roles. Instead, the rigid gender roles have persisted through market liberalization and demographic transition, despite the theory of unprofitability of continued discrimination. Though experiencing better access to education, females have been primarily excluded from the formal economy especially in the labor market. Despite the fact that the percentage of women in paid employment in MENA rose from 25 percent in 1980 to 30 percent in 2006, this still falls significantly lower than the world average of 52 percent (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 15). More indicative of the rigidity of gender roles are the rates of education and wage employment rates for single women between ages 15 to 49 in MENA countries: 62.4 percent in Algeria have primary education or less with only 6.6 percent employed; in Egypt, 29.4 percent have primary education or less with 12.25 working; and Yemen ranking lowest with 84.6 percent with primary education or less and an astonishing 2.99 engaged in paid labor (Rashad 47).

The disenfranchisement and disempowerment of half of the population has had severe consequences on economic growth and on the deficiency of the demographic dividend. As Rashad explains, for economic progress to be equally shared and to result in the improvement of quality of life, ‘societal concerns with reduction of population size should be paralleled with equal investment in women’s needs’ (47). This investment needs to be made to empower women, upgrade and expand their choices, and foster more balanced relations, especially for the increasing numbers of single women, for whom ‘access to wage earning work is an emotional and emotional necessity’ (Rashad 47). However, cultural preferences and limited job opportunities have kept many women out of the educational systems and labor force (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 16). In 2006, 17 percent of the labor force was unemployed in MENA, with a much higher rate of 30 percent among young women (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 17). Of the 10 million illiterate youth in MENA, 66 percent are females, encapsulating the educational inequality that helps perpetuate economic inequality in the region (Roudi-Fahimi and Kent 16). Further, while increased government effort has successfully restrained population growth, there has been an absence of serious investment to address constrained resources among women and youth populations. With these two segments of the population deprived of full economic resources the MENA region has had only a marginal improvement of the quality of life (Rashad 54).


The past two decades in the MENA region have witnessed a steady but slow decline in total fertility rates while experiencing instability and contraction in the economic arena, a stiff departure from the boom expected. Continued demographic progress will be realized if countries in MENA can duplicate the achievement of the Iranian family planning program, which Mehryar regards as an exceptional model because of the integration of family planning with primary health care, the removal of socioeconomic barriers to contraceptive supplies, the involvement of men and religious leaders, and most importantly, the removal of physical and ideological barriers to family planning (18). Currently, however, the progress towards demographic transition and its correlated economic dividend have been offset by high unemployment rates, gender role inflexibility, and continued economic and political volatility. In the words of Williamson, to realize the demographic gift, MENA must ‘devote considerable attention to strengthening its financial, legal, and political institutions while simultaneously adopting a coherent set of long-term economic policies’ (51). While on the sole basis of future demographic projections, MENA will have an opportunity to raise its per capita GDP, governments will have to show a stronger commitment to investing in their societies and proactively moving to break down barriers to entry, specifically the deleterious cultural restrictions that prevent full participation of females in the economy.


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Written by Alec at SOAS for his MSc Political Economy of Development.

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[tags]demographic transition, middle east, mena, north africa, demographic gift, economics of fertility, contraception, education, female labor, islamic culture, education[/tags]


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