On the occasion of the World Population Day, Lebanese decision makers should start taking into consideration the characteristics of our country’s population trends in order to better develop socioeconomic policies. The United Nations 2012 revised Population Prospects have revealed some shocking data about Lebanon that can no longer be ignored. Governments exist to serve the needs and interests of their citizens; without knowledge of population’s structure, how can a government plan for the provision of basic needs like transportation, electricity, clean water, basic healthcare, and employment?
The Lebanese population has been increasing at a very slow pace over the past couple of decades, but is estimated to start decreasing after 2045 even with the influx of Syrian refugees into the country. The reasons behind this are simple. Between 2005 and 2010, the average Lebanese woman had only 1.58 children. This is the lowest fertility rate in the whole Middle East and North African region, down from the previous rate of 4.78 children per woman in the early seventies. This low birth rate, coupled with high emigration rates among youth and the presence of 1.2 million Syrian nationals in the country, pose serious economic and social challenges that government policies must recognize and address.
On a demographic level, the United Nations estimates that the percentage of population older than 60 years will increase from 11.9% in 2010 to 33.8% in 2050. This means that the retired population, and its respective health care bill, will triple over the next 40 years. Meanwhile, an already failing National Social Security Fund that covers only 35% of the labor force is increasingly weighed down by the informal labor market. Economically speaking, the average age of the labor force will drastically increase from 19 years in 1970 to 45 years in 2040. This will greatly affect the Lebanese economy, especially within the global market that has become highly dependent on technology and innovation.
The Lebanese government has failed to acknowledge and act upon these growing concerns. This failure is clear when we consider that the last comprehensive population census dates back to 1932. Governments since then have been avoiding a census so as not to reveal the true distribution of religious sects within the population. Furthermore, since 1998, the Lebanese government has been co-funding projects with international donors, such as the United Nations Population Fund, to reduce a fertility rate that is already below replacement level. With a public debt of more than 55 billion dollars, why is the government still spending public funds to implement the agenda of international donors, rather than address the real needs of the population?
The Lebanese government needs to promote a healthy economic environment that encourages the development of the creative industry, which in turn will help reduce the current brain drain, especially among fresh graduates. In addition, knowing that its health bill will continuously increase over the next 40 years, the National Social Security Fund requires major restructuring. Regardless of who heads the next cabinet, its agenda must recognize the challenges posed by the changing population dynamics in Lebanon and adopt concrete, evidence-based policies.
Cedric Choukeir is the regional director of the World Youth Alliance in the Middle East.