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Monday May 20, 2024

Towards a new eco-social contract

By Dr Luay Shabaneh
May 02, 2024
A representational image showing the emission of gases by burning fossil fuels in an oil exploration facility. — AFP/File
A representational image showing the emission of gases by burning fossil fuels in an oil exploration facility. — AFP/File

At the recent UNFPA Asia-Pacific Leadership Conference, I had the honour of moderating a panel discussion on demographic diversity. The panel discussion delved into the complexities of developing new business models that fit the world’s diverse demographic and economic conditions.

This landscape exhibits contrasting patterns of demographic dynamics, including growth and aging. Some regions are experiencing population decline and low birth rates (such as China, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea), while other regions are experiencing rapid population growth and high birth rates (such as Afghanistan, Sudan, and several African countries, etc). As for Pakistan’s population growth, it is the 68th highest-growing population among 204 countries.

Over the next two decades, the geographic centre of Asia’s population is expected to shift significantly from China to the Indian subcontinent. This shift is due to projections indicating that Pakistan and India will experience a population increase of more than 300 million people, while China and Russia will see a decline of about 175 million people.

This demographic and economic polarization has created two distinct poles. One is characterized by economic development and high living standards yet faces demographic insecurity and unsustainability due to declining birth rates and aging populations. The other is characterized by demographic affluence but declining living standards and unsustainability due to challenges arising from economic inefficiency.

At the same time, humanitarian crises caused by violent conflict and deep political and demographic divisions, coupled with the existential threat posed by climate change highlight the need for a paradigm shift.

Recognizing this urgency, the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) has introduced the concept of an eco-social contract as an alternative version of the current social contract. This includes new aspects such as human rights, economic transformation to mitigate climate change, and addressing historical injustices and inequalities, including those related to sexual health. These intersecting inequalities are deepened by and exacerbate a major global crisis, leaving little room for shared prosperity.

While the two extremes have distinct characteristics and concerns, they share demographic challenges and risks along with proposals for inadequate and unsustainable solutions. These proposed solutions aimed at improving a country’s demography often infringe upon the absolute right of individuals to plan their reproduction without external constraints or impose an undue burden on women.

This undermines gender equality and women’s bodily autonomy by imposing demographic security on the state. In recent decades, the concept of governance has become central to asserting government accountability to the people as rights holders. However, about a decade ago, the term ‘reproductive governance’ emerged to highlight the mechanisms through which various actors exert control, incentives, moral imperatives, coercion, and ethical pressures on individuals to change their reproductive behaviour. Some countries have even attempted to redefine ‘human rights’ in ways that increase pressure on women to increase birth rates.

History serves as a powerful teacher, demonstrating that sustainable development cannot be achieved by imposing measures on people that infringe upon their rights and choices. Furthermore, global development challenges, such as the Covid-19 pandemic and climate change, cannot be effectively addressed through unilateral action alone.

The eco-social contract transcends borders and requires countries to come together to address global, regional, and national concerns and fulfil their obligations. Governments that adopt a multilateral approach to development and humanitarian concerns are on the right track. In contrast, unilateralism perpetuates a vicious cycle of inequality and injustice.

Therefore, to address these global and domestic challenges, governments must refrain from implementing destructive measures that violate human rights. Instead, they should focus their efforts on two major fronts: the first is to complete the unfinished reproductive rights agenda at both the national and global levels. Unmet needs persist in family planning, and addressing infertility remains a challenge.

A recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the global prevalence of infertility revealed that many people desire to have more babies but are unable to do so. The report estimates that one in six people experience infertility at some point in their lives, with a lifetime prevalence of infertility rate of approximately 18 per cent.

Conversely, a recent UNFPA report highlights the need to accelerate efforts by 38 times to eliminate unmet family planning needs and 42 times to reduce preventable maternal deaths by 2030. At the current pace of progress, Pakistan will take 94 years to eliminate unmet family planning needs, 122 years to eliminate maternal deaths, and 53 years to eliminate child marriage.

The second direction is to adopt a multilateral approach to address demographic, economic, and climate uncertainties, with migration playing a crucial role. This entails viewing migration in a broader, more constructive, and dynamic manner encompassing the movement of people, industries, knowledge, skills, and practices in a dynamic, multidirectional, multilateral process driven by global development needs.

Such an approach aims to meet the needs of all stakeholders while leveraging the strengths of diverse populations in a balanced model that avoids injustice including brain drain and resource depletion in the countries of origin. Some efforts are already underway in this direction; for instance, diverse demographic changes in Asia foster new connections with countries like Japan and South Korea shifting much of their production to areas with large young populations.

Pakistan stands at a crossroads where decisive interventions are imperative. These statistics not only highlight the pressing need for enhanced investment and policy but also emphasize the country’s significant influence on shaping regional demographic dynamics.

Pakistan’s demographic trends and policy decisions have far-reaching impacts beyond its borders. It is crucial to underscore the country’s pivotal role in contributing to the region’s development trajectory. By prioritizing and accelerating efforts to achieve the three transformative results, Pakistan has the potential to not only improve the wellbeing of its own population but also catalyze positive ripple effects throughout the broader Asia-Pacific region.

Solidarity with the planet and its inhabitants, grounded in multilateral cooperation and collaboration, is critical for addressing the demographic, economic, environmental and social challenges we face. This approach offers practical and comprehensive solutions to address historical injustices caused by war, conflict and inequality. It also enables bridging existing gaps and transforming challenges into opportunities for all countries.

Returning to Pakistan, I believe this country is blessed with abundant resources. It needs to intensify its efforts, translate its commitments into policy and budget allocation, enact bold legislation and implement structural reforms to effectively manage its family planning portfolio and human capital investments.

This should be done using the human rights-based and multilateral approach by opening new avenues of opportunity to create a breathing space for the economy. These efforts could ultimately translate into higher welfare and livelihood standards in the country.


The writer is the UNFPA representative in Pakistan.