Balancing Population Growth With Available Resources [Archives:1998/29/Interview]

July 20 1998

Mr. Mohammed Ali Al-Hajj, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Population Council (SPC), graduated is an old hand in government services, having joined 1974. He holds an MA in economic development.
Al-Hajj, 50, is now in charge of an extremely important organ – the SPC. The reason is that population issues are going to command the future of this country. To start with, an extremely high rate of population growth poses a serious danger to the well being of the nation. Then, the re-structuring of the age pyramid and providing for a youthful population is going to take some doing.
Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi of Yemen Times discussed with Mr. Al-Hajj these issues. He filed the following excerpts.
Q: When was the Supreme Population Council first established?
A: At first it was just a branch for demographic analysis within the Information Bank. Then in 1990, it became independent.
The first National Population Conference was held in 1991, in which a population strategy was formulated. But remained on paper until 1995.
I am the first Secretary General of this Council, as I’m a specialist in population and demographic analysis. The second conference was held in October, 1996, when a more detailed strategy for population was worked out. Other results of the conference is the program of Mother, Child and Family Planning. Also the Media, Economy and Population Planning.
Q: What is the specialization of the Council?
A: It is the Council that draws the general policy of the government and population policy. The council is headed by the Prime Minister and his vice president is the Minister of Planning and the members of the council. Ten Ministers are also in the heading of the Council. You could say that half of the cabinet are members of the Council.
The Council also has a General Secretariat which is the Executive Committee. We have something to do with the policy of the Ministry of Health. We are planning to include our population policies and programs within the Ministry of Education’s curriculum in all its branches. We will do this project and give it to the Education Ministry to be carried out.
The Council has prepared its own ideas with regards to Family Planning and Maternal and Child Care.
We focus on women’s health from the time of pregnancy till delivery. We should educate people about the importance of family planning rather than birth control. The first is not obligatory. When a women has half a dozen of children, for instance, what will the father do for them? He will not be able to dress, feed, or school them properly.
Q: How many employees does the Council have?
A: The Council employs different people temporarily, so that we have new faces all the time. We have committees headed by governors and the membership of other officials. We are now thinking of how to support them administratively.
We try to make people from different ministries participate actively in the Council. We have made contracts with different qualified people to perform several studies pertaining to population problems.
Q: Do you have any relations with the Ministry of Interior with regards to birthrates and deaths?
A: Our relation with the Civil Records Office focuses on registering these birthrates and deaths.
Q: Is there any population policy in Yemen, when was it formed and by whom?
A: We have the National Population Strategy Document which was formed by different bodies. We have specified the future plans of our work. This unique strategy was prepared by Yemeni experts from different ministries and the participation of some international organizations and also with the help of strategies performed in some Arab countries like Egypt and Morocco. This strategy is comprehensive covering different projects in different ministries like Health, Education, etc.
Q: What are the means of family planning?
A: Information media are the most important means in this regard. They should educate people about our plans. Some people are easily influenced by TV and Radio, some by religious people. So the work needs some cooperation. When people are convinced, they start looking for the means which we can provide.
We are planning to go to different remote places for this purpose. Our plan is for 20 years. The proportion of fertility has decreased by 1%. The birth-rate was 7.5% now it’s 6.50%, so we’re making a tremendous progress.
Q: What are the obstacles facing your strategy?
A: There are not many obstacles. The Quran and Sunnah encourage family planning, so there won’t be many difficulties from the social point of view. But finance is our main problem. With financial support, our plans and strategies can cover the whole of Yemen.
Q: Do you have any statistical data and figures of the number of the Yemeni immigrants abroad?
A: We should define the meaning of immigrants. Are they the ones who live abroad for 6 months to 1 year? We have relations with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to solve the problems of these immigrants.
Q: What is the proportion of population increase yearly, and what is the number of deaths and for what reasons?
A: The population growth rate is due to the improvement of health care. In the past, the number of births and deaths were almost equal. The population was 4.5 million in 1950, 8.2 million in 1980, 11.3 million in 1990, and 12.5 million in 1991. The average has reached 3.7% according to the census of 1994.
The population is expected to be 31.6 million in the year 2013. Up to this moment it is 17 million. So education is very important particularly for women. Educated women can play a vital role in the success of our plans for family planning. There was a tremendous leap between 1975 and 1980. The average was 1.3%, in 1994 it became 3.7%. So we can notice a big change. The reason is the decrease of deaths.
The average number of births is 1800 daily. In 5 minutes we have an increase of 6 persons. The increase infant and child mortality is because of diseases such as small-pox, also death increases due to cancer. The number of males is larger than that of females. We have 100 females to each 105 males. The deaths among male children is bigger. For youths, deaths among males is also bigger than that of females.
Q: What is the relation between population and water resources development, also what are the social, economic, and political effects?
A: As I mentioned, everything is for the population. Water is for them and we have to deal with it. If the population growth rate is 3.7% and the economic growth rate is 3.7%, it means that there is no growth at all. In fact, we have a population explosion, it is disastrous. The economic growth rate should be double the population growth rate. It becomes difficult to provide such a huge number of people with facilities. And thus poverty dominates.
Q: Some say that Yemen is well-off and rich with its petroleum and fish resources, but the problem is of mismanagement, what are your views?
A: It is not true that this because of mismanagement of resources. Oil cannot do that much. The revenue of oil does not reach us directly. No country can depend on just one resource to achieve development. I think the fishing resources are better than the oil resources.
One kilo of shrimps is sold at US $20 and 1 barrel of oil is sold at US $10. One kilo of shrimps is equal to 10 barrels of oil. So we should be concentrating on the fisheries.
Another problem is that 80% of the population are living in Sanaa, Taiz, Ibb, and Hodeida, well we should encourage education in the other less populated governorates. My suggestion is to charge the students living in the big cities, and the money received would be given to those living in the remote areas. This is to encourage settlement in these places.
Q: What is the proportion of the poor and where do they live in such large numbers?
A: Every country has its own definition of ” poor”. A person whose income is less than YR 800 per month is classed as poor. They are found mainly in Taiz, Hodeida and Ibb. The approximate estimates of 1992 has shown that 21.3% of the whole population lives in poverty. Most of them live in the countryside. They represent 92.7% of the total population. The income of people differs from one place to another.
Q: Does the problem facing the poor have something to do with the equal distribution of wealth?
A: I think that for a real development we should turn towards sea investment. It is very important for any growth. We should also concentrate on tourism. Its income is large. Everybody in the country can get its benefits; the taxi driver, the hotel owner, the farmers, the grocers etc. One US dollar from tourism is equal to US $ 5 of oil.
Q: Any last comments?
A: We would like the mass media to play its vital role in raising the awareness of the people regarding the dangers of this population explosion. The Yemen Times can help a lot in conveying our message to the international organizations which can help in tackling this problem.