Brain drain, ageing, slow growth facing Caribbean populations

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LOOP: NEWS Low fertility rates, ageing, non-communicable diseases, limited opportunities for youth, and outmigration have emerged as some of the latest demographic trends for the Caribbean region.  

These and other issues of importance to Caribbean populations were at the forefront of a global policy dialogue among a panel of experts which took place at the Fourth International Conference on Small Island Developing States (SIDS4) in Antigua & Barbuda. 

Hosted by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) the discussion centered on the findings of the UN DESA report, “Population Prospects of Countries in Special Situations” and featured the voices of John Wilmoth, Director, Population Division, UN DESA, Jenny Karlsen, Deputy Director, Sub-Regional Office for the Caribbean, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Ashley Lashley, Executive Director, The Ashley Lashley Foundation, Li Junhua, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, Mayor Bernard Wagner of Belize City, and moderator, Caribbean journalist, Daphne Ewing-Chow. 

The UN-DESA report provides an analysis of current and projected population trends from the current period to 2050 for 110 vulnerable countries or territories— among these— Small Island Developing States. 

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are a diverse group of 57 islands and coastal nations scattered across three major geographical regions—the Caribbean, the Pacific, and the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and South China Sea (AIS).  

Twenty-nine of the 57 Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are located in the Caribbean— home to 46.5 million people. This represents over 63 per cent of the total population of all SIDS. 

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Slow Population Growth 

The population of the Caribbean is the slowest growing among all the SIDS and is expected to increase only marginally— to 49.5 million by 2050. Although the population of Caribbean SIDS is expected to remain the largest within the SIDS grouping, its share is projected to decrease from 63 per cent to 58 per cent of the total, given the faster rate of growth of other SIDS populations.  

Jamaica stands out, having entered a significant phase of demographic transition in 2022 when its population began to decline, signifying a historic shift. This downward trajectory is projected to persist, driven by a sustained decrease in the population growth rate, which is lower than other Caribbean SIDS. Projections indicate that by 2050, Jamaica’s total population will stabilise at around 2.5 million, a level reminiscent of the population size observed in the mid-1990s. 

Diminishing Youth Opportunities and ‘Brain-Drain’  

In the Caribbean, the impact of outmigration is deeply felt due to various contributing factors: geographical isolation, limited resources, vulnerability to climate change impacts, socio-economic fragility, and a lack of opportunities, particularly for the youth. The phenomenon of ‘brain drain’, where skilled professionals leave their home countries, has emerged as a major concern in many Caribbean SIDS. 

Jenny Karlsen of UNFPA advised that young people aged 10-24 years account for a quarter of the Caribbean population and their needs must be seen as a priority. 

“We have to leverage and harness the youth cohorts that we still have in the region. We have to prioritise investment in job creation, in education, and in health services that are tailored for the youth. And we need to give them a voice at the table of decision making,” she said. 

Over the past two decades, the Caribbean has experienced a significant net population loss due to outmigration. Between 2000 and 2022, an estimated 3.2 million individuals left Caribbean SIDS.   

Ashley Lashley, a youth advocate and head of the Ashley Lashley Foundation in Barbados, discussed the migration decisions of young people, stating, “After studying for your Bachelor’s for three years or even your Master’s for a year, it’s really hard to come out and get a job… We have a very serious problem where a lot of the degrees are not aligning with the jobs which are available.” 

Ashley Lashley, Executive Director, The Ashley Lashley Foundation

According to the UN DESA report, the Caribbean region dominates the SIDS diaspora, accounting for 86 per cent of the total migrant stock originating from SIDS in 2020.   

John Wilmoth, Director of the UN DESA Population Division who leads the team responsible for the report, highlighted the significant impact of migration on the demographic profiles of many SIDS, noting that, “For nearly half of the Caribbean SIDS, the diaspora exceeds 30 per cent of the total population at origin.” 

In Jamaica for example, the number of migrants residing abroad increased from 860,000 to 1.1 million between 2000 and 2020. This diaspora accounted for approximately 33 per cent of Jamaica’s total population in 2000 and surged to 40 per cent by 2020, positioning Jamaica among the top 15 countries globally with the largest diaspora relative to its population size. 

This demographic trend underscores the profound impact of outmigration on the Caribbean region and highlights the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to address its repercussions. 

Ageing Populations 

Population ageing presents a significant concern raised for the region. Marked by a gradual increase in the proportion of older individuals within the population, it is exacerbated by persistently high rates of net outmigration, particularly among the younger demographic. 

Bernard Wagner, the Mayor of Belize City, Belize, emphasized the impact of an ageing population in many SIDS, including Belize. 

“In many cities, including Belize, we are experiencing an ageing population. This demographic shift necessitates robust health care, age friendly infrastructure, and social services that cater to the elderly,” he said. 

In 2022, life expectancy at birth (LEAB) in Caribbean SIDS averaged 73 years, with a range across the region spanning from under 70 to 80 years. The region has experienced advanced population ageing compared to other SIDS, with approximately half of its population aged over 32 years in 2023. By 2050, as population ageing progresses, the median age in the region is projected to average at 39.5 years while in Jamaica, it is expected to rise to an average of 47. 

In the Caribbean and AIS regions, nine out of ten SIDS have populations where at least 7 per cent are older individuals. This demographic shift has resulted in an elevated old-age dependency ratio with as many as 20 to 40 older persons per 100 working-age individuals in 2023. This trend is expected to accelerate to 2050. 

Non-Communicable Diseases 
 
 

According to the World Health Organization, “SIDS are disproportionately represented among the countries with the highest estimated risk of dying prematurely from any of the four main NCDs.” 

SIDS experience a high prevalence of major NCD risk factors, including tobacco use, unhealthy diets, excessive alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and air pollution.  

John Wilmoth said that these risk factors have contributed to a surge in obesity-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, that have imposed a significant public health burden on SIDS. 

“Nine SIDS, primarily situated in the Pacific, were among the top 20 countries in 2019 with the highest mortality rates linked to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, or chronic respiratory disease,” Wilmoth explains. “The ten countries with the highest obesity prevalence are all SIDS in the Western Pacific, where the obesity prevalence is greater than 45 per cent of adults.” 

Panelists at the dialogue explored how demographic changes could drive progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and overall prosperity for the people of SIDS. 

UN Under-Secretary-General Li Junhua, Head of UN DESA and Secretary-General of the SIDS4 Conference, highlighted that “Sustainable development for SIDS will hinge on making the most of the demographic changes ahead,” while also reaffirming the UN’s solidarity with SIDS in managing these trends. 

The “Population Prospects” report series by UN DESA provides regular research and insights on demographic trends, acting as a crucial resource for countries in their sustainable development planning. 

The SIDS4 event was part of the ongoing UN DESA Global Policy Dialogue Series. Since its launch in 2020, the series has hosted monthly online discussions on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), engaging a dedicated and passionate virtual audience. 

Written by: Daphne Ewing-Chow 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Governments like Antigua and Barbuda current government care nothing about your degree or exceptional ability. Positions given are not based on qualifications but on relationship and connection.

    Find all government department in Antigua and see if 50% of departments are headed or advised by someone with a matching degree from a bachelor’s or higher?

    Then look to see if any department is headed by a person with a master’s degree or higher.

    The answer will be nope. It is why there will now be a brain drain in places like Antigua and folks leaving Antigua and go to places like St. Kitts, US, England, Canada, etcetera.

    Leaders will say things like I cannot help you and completely ignore your request.

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