Thursday, June 07, 2012

Fertility Decline in the Muslim World

From Stanford University Policy Review #173, June 01, 2012, by Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt and Apoorva Shah (Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Henry Wendt chair in political economy at the American Enterprise Institute, where Apoorva Shah served as research fellow):
... the United Nations Population Division (UNPD) and the United States Census Bureau (USCB) — regularly estimate and project population trends for all the countries in the world....
...The unpd provides estimates and projections for period “total fertility rates” (births per woman per lifetime) for over 190 countries and territories across the planet for both the late 1970s and the 2005 to 2010 period. Using these data, we can appraise the magnitude of fertility declines in 48 of the world’s 49 identified Muslim-majority countries and territories.
...according to unpd estimates and projections, all 48 Muslim-majority countries and territories witnessed fertility decline over the three decades under consideration. To be sure: For some high-fertility or extremely-high-fertility venues in sub-Saharan Africa, where tfrs (total fertility rates) in the six to eight range prevailed in the late 1970s, declines are believed to have been marginal (think of Sierra Leone, Mali, Somalia, and Niger). In other places where a fertility transition had already brought tfrs down around three by the late 1970s, subsequent absolute declines also appear to have been somewhat limited (think of Kazakhstan). In most of the rest of the Muslim-majority countries and territories, however, significant or dramatic reductions in fertility have been registered — and in many of these places, the drops in question have been truly extraordinary.
With respect to absolute changes in tfrs, the population-weighted average for the grouping as a whole amounted to a drop of an estimated 2.6 births per woman between 1975 and 1980 and 2005 and 2010 — a markedly larger absolute decline than estimated for either the world as a whole (-1.3) or the less developed regions as a whole (-2.2) during those same years. Fully eighteen of these Muslim-majority places saw tfrs fall by three or more over those 30 years — with nine of them by four births per woman or more! In Oman, tfrs plummeted by an astonishing 5.6 births per woman during those 30 years: an average estimated pace of nearly 1.9 births per woman every decade.
As for relative or proportional fertility declines, here again the record is striking. The estimated population-weighted average for the Muslim-majority areas as a whole was -41 percent over these three decades: by any historical benchmark, an exceptionally rapid tempo of sustained fertility decline. In aggregate, the proportional decline in fertility for Muslim-majority areas wasareas as a whole was -41 percent over these three decades: by any historical benchmark, an exceptionally rapid tempo of sustained fertility decline. In aggregate, the proportional decline in fertility for Muslim-majority areas was again greater than for the world as a whole over that same period (-33 percent) or for the less-developed regions as whole (-34 percent). Fully 22 Muslim-majority countries and territories were estimated to have undergone fertility declines of 50 percent or more during those three decades — ten of them by 60 percent or more. For both Iran and the Maldives, the declines in total fertility rates over those 30 years were estimated to exceed 70 percent....
...six of the ten largest absolute declines in fertility for a two-decade period yet recorded in the postwar era (and by extension, we may suppose, ever to take place under orderly conditions in human history) have occurred in Muslim-majority countries. The four very largest of these absolute declines, furthermore, all happened in Muslim-majority countries — each of these entailing a decline of over 4.5 births per woman in just 20 years. (The world record-breaker here, Oman, is estimated to have seen its tfr fall by over 5.3 births per woman over just the last two decades: a drop of over 2.6 births per woman per decade.) Notably, four of the ten greatest fertility declines ever recorded in a 20-year period took place in the Arab world (Algeria, Libya, Kuwait, and Oman); adding in Iran, we see that five of these “top ten” unfolded in the greater Middle East. No other region of the world — not highly dynamic Southeast Asia, or even rapidly modernizing East Asia — comes close to this showing....
... Iran has registered one of the most rapid and pronounced fertility declines ever recorded. By 2000... tfr for the country as a whole had dropped to 2.0, below the notional replacement level of 2.1. But there were also great regional variations within Iran, with some areas (such as the largely Baluchi provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan in the east and the largely Kurdish West Azerbaijan province in the west) well above replacement, and much of the rest of the country far below replacement. Note in particular that Tehran and Isfahan reported fertility levels lower than any state in the U.S. With a tfr of 1.4, indeed, Tehran’s fertility level in 2000 would have been below the average for the eu-27 for 2002 (tfr 1.45), well below 2000 fertility in such places as Portugal (1.54) and Sweden (1.54), and only slightly higher than such famously low-fertility European countries as Italy (1.26) and Germany (1.38)....
... Typically, demographers and other social scientists in our era attempt to explain fertility changes in terms of the socioeconomic trends that drive (or at least accompany) them....
.... “Developmentalist” perspectives cannot explain the great changes underway in many of these countries and territories — in fact, various metrics of socioeconomic modernization serve as much poorer predictors of fertility change for Muslim-majority populations than for non-Muslim populations. Not to put too fine a point on it: Proponents of “developmentalism” are confronted by the awkward fact that fertility decline over the past generation has been more rapid in the Arab states than virtually anywhere else on earth — while well-informed observers lament the exceptionally poor development record of the Arab countries over that very period.
By the same token, contraceptive prevalence has only limited statistical power in explaining fertility differentials for Muslim-majority populations — and can do nothing to explain the highly inconvenient fact that use of modern contraceptives remains much lower among Muslim-majority populations than among non-Muslim societies of similar income level, despite the tremendous fertility declines recorded in the former over the past generation.
Put another way: Materialist theories would appear to come up short when pressed to account for the dimensions of fertility change registered in large parts of the Ummah over the past generation. An approach that focuses on parental attitudes and desires, their role in affecting behavior that results in achieved family size, and the manner in which attitudes about desired family size can change with or without marked socioeconomic change may prove more fruitful here....
...The remarkable fertility declines now unfolding throughout the Muslim world is one of the most important demographic developments in our era. Yet it has been “hiding in plain sight” — that is to say, it has somehow gone unrecognized and overlooked by all but a handful of observers*, even by specialists in the realm of population studies. Needless to say, such an oversight is more than passing strange, and we do not propose to account for it here. Preconceptions about the nature of “Muslim society” and “Muslim family values” may or may not help explain why these dramatic developments have come as such a surprise to so many otherwise well-informed students of the international scene. By the same token, the essentially “frozen” nature of politics in so many Muslim-majority countries over the past generation (at least until the Arab Spring) may or may not have encouraged in many quarters the unwarranted presumption that rhythms of life beneath these seemingly unchanging Muslim-world autocracies were unchanging as well. Whatever the case may be, the great and still ongoing declines in fertility that are sweeping through the Muslim world most assuredly qualify as a “revolution” — a quiet revolution, to be sure — but a revolution in which hundreds of millions of adults are already participating: and one which stands to transform the future.

*Two works in particular may be saluted in this regard:
  • Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd’s A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around The World (Columbia University Press, 2011), and
  • David P. Goldman’s How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Regnery, 2011).
The former is a translation of a 2007 study by two noted French demographers; the latter, a wide-ranging and provocative exposition by an American public intellectual. Neither work has to date received the readership it deserves.
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