The increasing number of births will rob Egypt of some of its imminent demographic dividend—the economic advantage of having few old people and children relative to the number of working adults. “Meeting the demands of this population will require strong, sustained economic growth and redistributive policies,” says Jaime Nadal Roig, who heads Egypt’s branch of the UN’s population fund. Sadly for Egypt, making the economic indicators tick up fast enough is as hard as making the fertility rate go back down.

While this blog has recently focussed on countries such as Germany and Japan that are facing imminent population and economic decline, today we will look at another country that is struggling with the consequences of population growth: Egypt.  A current population of over 88 million, a fertility rate of 3.5 children per woman, a falling infant mortality rate, rising life expectancy for Egyptians, and the prospect of faster population growth have various academics and NGOs worried. As the Economist reports:

“By 2050 the UN thinks Egypt could be home to up to 140m people; and they live on just over 5% of its land, along the Nile and coast, since the rest is desert. Only with fewer than 55m people would the country escape being classed as ‘water poor’ (with less than 1,000 cubic metres of water per person a year), says Atef al-Shitany, head of family planning at the health ministry. Shabby schools and hospitals are increasingly overburdened.”

The ruler of Egypt for 30 years from 1981, Hosni Mubarak, aimed to reduce the country’s fertility rate to 2.1 children per woman (roughly the replacement rate). He made remarkable progress: by 2005 the country’s rate had nearly halved to three. However, since then and the intervening series of revolutions, Egypt’s fertility rate has crept upwards.

The Sisi Government has not set a target fertility rate, instead it:

“emphasises informed choice. The government says it will improve family-planning services and encourage girls to stay in school longer. It is piloting cash transfers to some poor families in the hope they will no longer depend on their children as potential earners.

Interestingly though, it seems as if Egyptians are already informed when making their family decisions: surveys show that 99% of Egyptian women know about preventing pregnancy. Instead, it may just be (shock, horror!) that Egyptians want bigger families. While the rural poor still have the most children, “the urban middle class has always stuck to the three-child model,” says Dalia Abd al-Hameed of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an NGO in Cairo.

Understandably, many Egyptian couples are unappreciative of the Government prying into their bedrooms and so state-led efforts to drive down fertility rates may be counterproductive (unless coercive like the Chinese model).  Further, the Egyptian Government might like to consider the position of other countries who are now dealing with problems associated with too-steep fertility rate declines. For example, the Economist notes that the Iranian fertility rate fell from 6.5 in 1980 to 1.9 today, due to rising incomes and a big push by the government for birth control. The government used to urge men to get vasectomies; now it is struggling to persuade women to have more children. Perhaps the lesson is that governments should be careful of what they wish for. And that trying to control such fundamentally personal and unpredictable decisions as family size is liable to result in unpredictable results.

Marcus Roberts was two years out of law school when he decided that practising law was no longer for him. He therefore went back to university and did his LLM while tutoring. He now teaches contract and...