John F. May
Former Visiting Scholar
July 13, 2017
Former Visiting Scholar
Deputy statistician for the National Bureau of Statistics in Male’, Republic of Maldives
(July 2017) The name of Maldives usually generates images of pristine beaches, marine wonders, and luxurious resorts and, as such, the country epitomizes the ultimate touristic destination. Nowadays, however, the Maldives are also in the news because of climate change and rising sea levels and its fragile environment is threatened by ominous global trends.
Maldives, located in the Indian Ocean southwest of Sri Lanka, encompass a large sea area with an Exclusive Economic Zone of 859,000 square kilometers. In this vast expanse, the emerged land area represents about 300 square kilometers, one third of 1 percent of the total country’s area. There are close to 1,200 islands, grouped in 20 Atoll-systems or Administrative Islands. Among these islands, 187 islands are inhabited and another 128 islands are resort-islands (50 more resort- islands are being developed). The capital city of Male’, which is in the center of the country, is among the most densely populated urban areas in the world. In September 2014, 129,381 persons (38 percent of the total resident population in Maldives) were living in Male’ on two square kilometers.
In the past 30 years, the Republic of Maldives has experienced rapid economic and social change.1 First, its economy has grown impressively. The multibillion U.S. dollars’ tourism industry, which started in 1972, is the main engine of this economic prowess. Currently, the country attracts 1.2 million visitors per year (one third of them come from China), and plans have been laid out to increase the number of tourists in the future. However, the economy is also supported by fisheries and services, and to a lesser extent by the agricultural sector. The economic growth, which had built up during the past four decades, has accelerated during the last 15 years. Maldives enjoy one of the highest Gross National Income (GNI) per capita in the South Asia region, as expressed in Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).2
Concomitantly, the population of Maldives has almost completed its demographic transition—the shift from high birth and death rates to low ones.3 As a consequence, the age and sex structure of the country has changed significantly. Today, with half a young dependent below age 15 for each active adult (ages 15 to 64), the country has opened its demographic window of opportunity and could possibly capture the benefits of a first demographic dividend (an economic surplus generated by changes in the age structure).
The results of the 2014 Population and Housing Census confirm this demographic picture.4 The 2014 Census adopted a de facto approach, which means that all people residing in the country were enumerated. The total population in Maldives at the time of the Census in September 2014 was 402,071 people. The Census enumerated 338,434 resident Maldivians and 63,637 resident Foreigners, about 16 percent of the total resident population in Maldives (according to administrative records, however, foreigners have been significantly undercounted). The 2014 Census findings highlight the issue of immigration to Maldives: Foreigners come mostly from India, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka, and work essentially in the tourism industry and the construction sector. Last but not least, the 2014 Census also pointed to the weight of the youth—47.5 percent of all resident Maldivians are less than 25 years old.
The Government of Maldives last addressed population and development issues in its 2004 Population Policy of the Maldives, as well as in its national development plans (NDPs).5 These documents are now in disuse. The 2007 Seventh National Development Plan (2006-2010), which was renamed the Strategic Action Plan 2009-2013, was the last NDP to be released. The Seventh NDP discussed in more details the population and development “consolidation policy,” whereby the Government elicited voluntary migration in order to regroup scattered populations in larger and more economically viable entities. This is necessary to save costs on the delivery of services (education and health) and provide better job opportunities. In addition to population and development policies, the Government had also adopted sectoral policies, including a Health Master Plan (a new one is being prepared), two youth strategies, several reproductive health policies, and a national gender strategy.
Current Government policies, as spelled out in the Election Manifestos (documents outlining the programs of political candidates), call for the creation of 94,000 new jobs in Maldives between 2013 and 2018. These policies also favor the migration of a large portion of the population (up to 100,000 people) to the Greater Male’ Area. These migrants would settle mostly in Hulhumale’, an island adjacent to Male’, where land has been reclaimed. The government is implementing infrastructure, housing schemes, new hospitals, and industrial development projects in Hulhumale´ and other nearby islands. The focus is to attract the youth population to Hulhumale’, which has been labelled a ‘Youth City’. The Government has also launched the construction of a bridge between Male’ and Hulhule (where the international airport is located and will be expanded). In total, about two-thirds of the total population of Maldives could eventually be concentrated into six islands in the center of the archipelago. Foreigners will probably represent a significant proportion of this population.
There is no doubt that the country is entering a new, potentially promising phase of its socioeconomic development. Addressing Maldivian youth’s human capital needs in education and health and managing internal as well as international migrations will help the country to take advantage of the new demographic trends and possibly capture a first demographic dividend. However, to achieve these goals, the Government will need to give the highest priority to the training of Maldivians in order to give them, and not the foreign workers, the benefits of a potential demographic dividend.