Central Asia Faces Window of Opportunity Amid Population Growth

ASTANA – The population of Central Asia has surged over the last three decades, exceeding 79 million people, with an average annual growth of one million in the past ten years alone. Despite challenges such as low living standards and high mortality rates, experts anticipate continued growth, projecting a population exceeding 100 million by 2050, according to United Nations (UN) data. 

Busy rush hour near Nazarbayev University in the Kazakh capital. Photo credit: Shutterstock

Region’s demographic profile 

As of Jan. 1, Uzbekistan leads the region with a population of 36.7 million, followed by Kazakhstan with 20 million, Tajikistan with 10 million, the Kyrgyz Republic with 7.1 million, and Turkmenistan with 7 million.

Uzbekistan also recorded a population density of 82 people per square kilometer as of January this year, marking an increase of 1.8 individuals compared to the previous year (80.2 people) and a significant rise of 20.7% over the past decade (67.9 people in 2013). 

Conversely, Kazakhstan has one of the world’s lowest population densities, with just 7.3 people per square kilometer. The Kyrgyz Republic follows with 34.6 people, Tajikistan with 72.3 people, and Turkmenistan with 12.9 people per square kilometer.

Yerkin Tukumov, director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies (KazISS), underscores human capital as a significant asset for Central Asian countries. The region remains one of the world’s youngest, with an average population age of 27.6, while in Kazakhstan, this figure stands at 31.8. 

In the upcoming years, favorable conditions exist for the region’s countries to capitalize on opportunities the young generation presents. However, it is crucial to recognize that by 2030-2035, this window of opportunity may gradually shrink due to increased urbanization, placing pressure on the social sector and potentially reducing birth rates.

Tukumov highlights the lack of definitive answers to the crucial question of whether Central Asian countries will effectively capitalize on their primary resource—people—to become a developed and unified region or if this resource will instead become a burden, leading to poverty and protest.

Economic implications

Analysts from the Eurasian Development Bank underscore Central Asia’s potential, with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of approximately $347 billion and a population exceeding 80 million. According to their findings, over the past two decades, the region has experienced significant economic expansion, with GDP quadrupling in real terms. 

The population has surged by 1.4 times since 2000, with recent years witnessing an annual growth rate of nearly 2%. Demographic growth will, in their opinion, contribute to the economic advancement of Central Asian countries. The region’s expanding population constitutes a significant market and a burgeoning labor force. The current distribution of age categories suggests a forthcoming increase in the labor force.

Over the past 20 years, the average annual economic growth rate of Central Asian countries stood at 6.2%. In comparison, developing countries experienced a growth rate of 5.3%, while the global average was 2.6% annually. The growth in export revenues, remittances from migrant workers, and foreign direct investment volumes contributed to increasing household incomes and reducing poverty. 

The turnover of external trade in goods in the region reached $165.5 billion in 2021, marking a sixfold increase over the past two decades. Mutual trade has been progressing at a faster pace compared to external trade. The volume of accumulated inward foreign direct investment (FDI) from third countries is estimated at $211 billion, surging more than 17 times over the last 20 years. 

However, despite these positive indicators, some Central Asian countries face challenges such as prolonged isolation, distance from major economic hubs, and a lack of access to the sea, which still adversely impacts the region’s attractiveness to international investors. The level of FDI relative to GDP, excluding investments in raw materials sectors, falls below the world average values, indicating underinvestment in Central Asian countries. 

Human capital development 

Experts stress the necessity of effective demographic policies to mitigate economic burdens and poverty associated with population growth. They urge governments to prioritize human capital development, enhance living standards, and promote education and employment opportunities.

Azamat Seitov, a demographer from Uzbekistan, emphasized the significance of skillful regulation and attention to human capital for further economic growth.

“It is necessary to establish conditions that enable citizens to fully realize their potential while upholding all their constitutional rights, including freedom of expression and movement. Only then can we foster conscious parenthood. With increased awareness, we will wield a powerful tool in regulating birth rates,” he said.

Shynar Tuleshova, a demographic expert from Kazakhstan, stressed the state’s responsibility to ensure universal access to quality education and underscored the importance of family efforts in prioritizing education for each child.

Akbar Subkhonov, head of the Department of Demographic Studies at the Institute of Economics and Demography of the National Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan, acknowledged the benefits of high population growth from a reproductive perspective but cautioned about the economic implications. He advocated for enhanced attention to the quality of life in rural areas.

“Over 70% of Tajikistan’s population lives in rural areas. It is imperative to assess the accessibility of quality education and healthcare in these regions and the economic accessibility of these services for the rural population,” he said.

Nurbubu Kerimova, a public figure from the Kyrgyz Republic, highlighted the state’s role in ensuring a quality life for its citizens, emphasizing the need for financing programs and coordinated societal efforts.

“To aspire to Singapore’s level, our foremost task is tackling corruption. Eliminating corruption lays the foundation for implementing effective personnel policies, which in turn facilitate improvements in education and healthcare. These two pillars are essential for nurturing a high-quality population,” she added.  

According to Maulen Ashimbayev, chairperson of Kazakhstan’s Senate, the upper house of Parliament, sustainable economic development directly depends on population size, well-being, and labor resources.

He underscored that the state’s foremost responsibility is to provide the population with employment, medical services, housing, and education. He has advocated for the establishment of a new demographic policy in Kazakhstan. 

“The agenda for fostering a Just Kazakhstan is based on the principle of human-centeredness, prioritizing the interests and needs of individuals to improve the quality of life and well-being of the population. This represents one of the fundamental objectives of our nation’s demographic policy,” he said. 

Ashimbayev also emphasized the strategic importance of increasing Kazakhstan’s population to 30-40 million in the coming decade to facilitate development.

The article was originally published in Kazinform. 

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