For demographer Dr Anne Goujon, 40, people are not just numbers. "People are in fact the most precious key to global development," she said, while speaking at the recent International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) conference on 'Global Development: Science and Policies for the Future' in Vienna.
But this is not how Goujon, a research scholar at the Population Program (POP) of the Austria-based IIASA, had always felt. While still at university, this French student had studied development economics and was convinced that taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor would solve all the problems of the world. "It is very simple to make a difference in the world, I had thought," she remarked.
Today, however, Goujon is far more pragmatic. She has realized that transferring money from "here to there" is not enough. According to her, it would be far more effective to invest in literacy programmes in the third world, as money in the hands of educated people, with clear policies and ideas, would probably be more beneficial to the economic growth in developing societies.
Advising policy makers to go beyond primary education targets, Goujon, who was one of the 40 experts that spoke at the conference that was attended by over 700 delegates, said that it is secondary education that has the capability to eventually improve the health and income of a population. Children between the age groups of 11 and 15 years begin to imagine their future and the profession they would like to take up. Therefore, it is this crucial phase in the life that requires maximum attention and investment.
The current global demographic landscape displays two distinct trends. In some parts of the world, rapid population growth is a major cause for concern. For instance, populations in sub-Saharan Africa are expected to double over the course of this century. Two factors expected to keep Africa at the bottom of world development, unless some trends radically change in the future, are continued rapid population growth; and stagnant or declining educational attainment levels.
On the other hand, in Eastern Europe where populations are rapidly aging and shrinking, there are worries about a skeletal labor force and vanishing pension funds.
Goujon defines human capital as the number of people, their age and education. Thus, she concludes that it is not just the number of people that makes a decisive difference to the economic growth of a society, but the skills people pick up early in life.
Reinforcing Goujon's views on the co-relation between education and prosperity is the IIASA's study of the population of 120 countries. The study displays consistent positive effects on the rate of economic growth when the educational status of the working age population is high. Figures for Pakistan, IIASA's newest member country, show that children between zero and four years remains the largest group there due to continued high fertility. An improvement in the quality of life of the educated younger generation has also been noticed in comparison to the majority of the adult population without formal schooling. This is especially true of women despite the fact that a majority still remains illiterate and poor due to a major gender gap in education.
According to Goujon, it is people who invent technologies of wealth and infrastructure. So, when people cooperate with each other, the quality of life around the world improves. However, the same people are also capable of endangering lives, directly through wars and indirectly by influencing the environment around them. It is this dual role of people - as agents of development and destruction - that is at the heart of any discussion on sustainable development.
While projecting the educational composition of the population of India, the demographer said that considerable progress was found in the seven states of Bihar, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh, which were selected for the IIASA study. However, the legacy of their past neglect of education and gender equity was still clearly visible in the form of low level education and illiteracy. The research revealed an inertia over investment in education, even today. "Our assumption that the progress made during the 1990s holds until 2026 is not sufficient to remove this legacy," Goujon said.
Policy makers have to speed up efforts towards educational progress beyond what has been achieved during the 1990s. For, even in 2026, in the vast majority of age groups, these states will not reach the educational levels of today's Kerala, one state that remains a superior example of investment in human capital, she said.
Goujon warned that the business-as-usual approach of today is inadequate to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of universal primary education by 2015. Projections indicate illiteracy among young adults aged between 20 and 29 years in 2026 who, in 2015, will be in the age group when primary schooling ought to have been completed. Unless this part of the population is educated, today, an increasing proportion of future working age population will remain uneducated for times to come. India should further research the extent to which progress needs to be stepped up to achieve the goal and the feasibility of doing so. For the implications of not acting now will spill far beyond its borders.
The world projection for 2026 is that of a rapidly ageing population in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. More than one third of the Japanese population will be 60 years and older by 2020. The implications are, of course, important in terms of potential migration of young populations to economically wealthy and ageing regions for work.
The question is how well prepared the abundant labour force of Indian migrants, in search of dignified employment opportunities abroad, truly is.