Monday, July 18, 2011

Indonesia and the Demographic Transition?

Many people don't realize that Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world, after China, India, and the United States. Indonesia's population is young and growing, two factors that have long-term implications for policy-makers in the country.  A topic that frequently comes up in discussions of economic and social development is the role of population growth in increasing or decreasing the prosperity of a country.  Today we're going to have a look at some basic principles of population geography, including a model that is one of the mainstays of introductory human geography courses.  We'll examine the applicability of this model along with it's strengths and weaknesses, and then we'll try to apply the model to Indonesia.

source: wikipedia
Lesser developed countries, as a general rule, tend to have higher rates of population growth than more developed countries.  There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but in general there is a pattern.  Have a look at the two maps I've included to the left.  The first is a global map of population growth.  The second map shows global figures for the Human Development Index, a measure the UN came up with to calculate development (1).  As you can see, areas with lower population growth tend to have higher human development indexes.

The problem with high population growth is that more people require the government to build more schools, health facilities, sewers, and a host of other social services.  If the population grows to rapidly, the government can't keep up and thus the overall standard of living decreases.  In addition, rapid population growth can outstrip the economy's growth, making it difficult for all of the new people to find jobs when they come of age.  Lack of employment or educational opportunities for a large younger generation can often lead to civil unrest (2).  In Indonesia government officials with the National Population and Family Planning Board (BKKBN) have raised concerns about potential problems related to overpopulation.  Sudibyo Alimoeso of BKKBN recently warned that if the population continues to grow at the current rate of 1.49 percent, it will reach 450 million by 2045.  Alimoeso warned taht a "grand design is needed for the revitalization of the national family planning program".  But how realistic are these concerns?

An Introduction to Population Geography

To analyze population change, it helps to be familiar with a few terms used by population geographers and demographers to describe the structure of a population.  Crude birth rate (CBR) refers to the number of babies born annually per 1000 people in the population, whereas crude death rate (CDR) refers to the number of deaths per 1000 people in a given year.  Thus CBR-CDR gives us the growth rate, since if you have more babies being born than people dying, the population will increase (3).  It turns out that if we look at the change of these numbers over time, a pattern emerges.

Warren Thompson developed a model to describe the progression from high growth to low (and potentially negative) growth in 1929.  He used observed changes in birth and death rates in industrialized countries over a period of 200 years.  What he found is that as countries industrialize and become wealthier, the death rate drops, followed by a later drop in the birth rate.  This model has come to be known as the Demographic Transition, and I've included a chart detailing it below.  In the demographic transition there are 5 stages (4), each with different fertility and mortality characteristics.
  1. Stage one.  The first stage is characterized by high birth and death rates.  Sometimes the death rate exceeds the birth rate; overall there is very slow population growth.  For most of human history we've been in stage one.  Because of the high death rates and the natural human drive to sustain the species, some population geographers have theorized the emergence of pro-natal values, or practices and beliefs that encourage childbirth.  This would include adolescent marriage, rigid gender roles, and fertility cults.  According to Demographic Transition Theory, every country in the world was in stage one until about the end of the 18th century.
  2.  Stage two.  In stage two the death rate begins a slow and steady decline (3).  This is due to improvements in food security brought about by agricultural advances as well as improvements in public health and better medical technology.  However, because pro-natal values have "inertia" and don't immediately disappear, the birthrate remains high, and so the population increases rapidly.
  3. Stage three.  In stage three the birth rate begins to decline since more children survive, and thus fewer babies are required to ensure a sufficient number "make it".  Although the birthrate is declining, since the death rate has not yet stabilized (it too is still falling), the population continues to grow relatively rapidly, but the rate of growth declines. 
  4. Stage four.  In stage four both the death rate and birthrate have stabilized at low levels, and so the population again experiences very low population growth, as in stage 1.  
  5. Stage five.  This stage was not part of the original model, because the conditions found in stage 5 couldn't have been predicted when the model was being formulated.  But demographers have noticed that in an increasing number of populations there are signs that the population is actually (or soon will be) decreasing.  This is because low fertility has predominated for several decades, and now the population is aging, and so there are more deaths than births.  This is not due to any deficiencies in healthcare or public safety, nor does it indicate the presence of natural disasters.  Rather the declining population is due to the historical development of the structure of the population itself. 
Currently Indonesia has a population of around 240 million people, with a growth rate of 1.49 percent.  Over the past ten years the population has grown by around 33 million people.  Growth at 1.49% is still growth, but it's not nearly as fast as some other countries.  So to figure out if the demographic transition model can be applied to Indonesia, I decided to look at the statistics (5).

Looking at these numbers we can make several observations.  In general, after 1905 there is a slow increase in the rate of population growth.  This would suggest that living conditions and standards of health and public safety were gradually improving.  There is a dramatic decline in 1945 and 1950, which is attributable to a decline in birth rates and an increase in death rates experienced during the Japanese occupation in World War II and the war for independence against the Dutch.  After 1950 the growth rate shoots up, which would be consistent with stage 2 of the demographic transition.  Then after 1970 the growth rate begins to decline, even though the population is still growing, which is consistent with stage 3 of the DT.  In addition, we have some anecdotal statistics concerning other indicators that suggest infant and child mortality along with fertility all experienced a dramatic decline over the course of 30 years.  The decline in fertility is consistent with stage 3 of the DT, whereas the declines in child mortality are more consistent with stage 2.  But overall the numbers seem to suggest that Indonesia has gone through most of the DT and is currently in stage 3. 

More than "pro-natal" values?

source: wikipedia
When comparing instances of the demographic transition across countries we tend to notice several differences.  Here I want to focus on how rapidly the CDR and CBR decline.  In European countries that first entered the demographic transition, we find that the decline in death rates is gradual, as in the example of Sweden to the right.  This is because advances in medicine and public health happened gradually; they had to be discovered over time.  However, in countries that entered the demographic transition later, we find that the decline in death rates is much steeper, meaning it happened much more rapidly.  Look at the graph of Sri Lanka to the left.  As you can see, there is a fairly dramatic decline in the death rate most notable in the 1940s.  This is because instead of discovering medical advances, technology can be shared, thus leading to drastic declines over the short term.  This has the effect of greatly increasing the rate of growth, because there is no corresponding decline in the birth rate.

We also find variations when we look at how rapidly the birth rate decreases.  In my experience, most explanations of the demographic transition have tended to overemphasize the role of pro-natal values, but it turns out there is more at work than this. Research over the past several decades indicates that the relative status of women in society is very important in determining the rate of decline.  Thus in Indonesia, where women have traditionally worked outside the home and have long had a larger role in "breadwinning" than some other countries, the birthrate seems to decline more rapidly, and so the period of high growth doesn't last as long.

What does all this mean for Indonesia?  Well it suggests that the population growth rate will probably continue to decline.  But does this mean the country should neglect its family planning program?  Of course not.  However, an understanding of demographic geography can help to design intelligent, forward-looking policies.


(1)  The HDI looks at life expectancy, average years of schooling, and income per person.  It is thought to be a more comprehensive picture of development than economic indicators.

(2)  For an interesting and path-breaking exposition on the connection between large youth populations and civil unrest read up on the Youth Bulge, a concept pioneered by Professor of Geography Emeritus (and one of my mentors) Gary Fuller of the University of Hawai'i.

(3)  These numbers don't consider immigration. For an interesting take on migration and the demographic transition check out he Zelinsky Model of Mobility Transition. 

(4)  Most treatments of the demographic transition use 3 or 4 stages; recently the 5th stage has been added but isn't found in all texts.  I think the 5th stage adds to the explanatory value of the model, so I use it.  Some demographers are now suggesting that there is even a 6th stage in the demographic transition. 

(5)  In my spreadsheet you can see columns for year, population, growth rate, infant mortality, under 5 mortality, fertility, and some birth and death rates.  I calculated the growth rates based on the statistics I found.  Numbers in black (and green) come from a source I presume to reliable that draws information from Indonesian government statistics.  I highlighted some of the numbers in green though because those growth rates are averages over 20 or 30 years, and I consider those averages to be less-than-reliable.  Numbers in red are from the website of the Indonesian bureau of statistics.  Numbers in blue are from another website.  In general I doubt the reliability of pre-1950 census numbers for Indonesia, but I have seen analyses that suggest the colonial census takers were fairly rigorous in the 20th century.  


Dangalle, Nimal.  1982.  Demographic Transition in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 5:2 pp1-29.  Found here.    

Nitisastro, Widjojo.  1970.  Population Trends in Indonesia.  Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Indonesia Bureau of Statistics


  1. Most people are not familiar with the area of Indonesia, and that probably explains why most people don't realize that Indonesia is the 4th most populated country in the world. I myself, don't really bother with these kind of trivial knowledge, but I did find the article quite interesting. In the five stages of demographic transition, you've managed to point out the good points as well at the bad points of each stage. However, it failed to conclude which is the ideal stage for a country to be in. I find it quite interesting that textbooks similarly accomplish the same goal, and leaving the reader to interpret the data. I've always thought of the rapid population growth as alarming because we'd run out of space to accommodate the entire population, but failed to realize how important a population plays a role in our economy.

  2. i really just wamted to know what stage indonesia was in.

  3. Hi there and thanks for the comment! So sorry my post failed you. Indonesia's not quite in the "Please Mr. Internet Do My Homework and All My Critical Thinking For Me" stage of the demographic transition!

  4. probably late stage 3, early stage 4 is the best place for a country to be in. You need a stable population growth for the dependency age groups...This would put you industrialized but intering a tertiary economy.