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Population growth in Reunion: a strong point for the island’s economic expansion?

Bourbon Island, as Reunion was then called, was populated around the mid XVIIth Century by French settlers. The isle had to wait until the XXth Century before seeing any rapid increase in its population.

Reunion, in administrative terms now both a département of France and an Overseas region, had at the end of 2006 over 780 000 inhabitants over a 2500 km² surface area. The symbolic figure of one million is expected to be reached in around 2030.

In order to gain better understanding of the driving forces behind this growth in population, a team of demographers collected a large quantity of data, on marriage rate, fecundity, mortality and migrations. Their analysis resulted in a detailed report on the changes in Reunion Island’s population from the mid 1980s up to the end of 2005. It revealed that during this period the Reunion population struggled to complete its demographic transition.

Since 1995, the synthetic fecundity index (SFI) stagnated at around 2.4 children per woman whereas in metropolitan France it had settled at about 1.9 children per woman, in other words at the limit of the threshold of generation renewal. Examination of Reunion’s fecundity alongside the low deviation in mortality figures between this overseas region and mainland France, brought out reasons for the island’s continuingly higher population growth rate compared with metropolitan France.

The changes in fecundity came about to a background of upheavals in Reunion’s society: the role and structure of the family, women’s condition and status, development of schooling and changes in the forms of marital union. The relatively higher fecundity in Reunion was judged to be a sign of “social fracture” suffered by the poorest sections of its population. Much of the difference in SFI turned out to be the result of high fecundity among young women of between 15 and 24 years. For these young girls, usually from deprived backgrounds, having a child early in life would be a way of gaining a certain respectability, motherhood in a way serving as an alternative to the social recognition that entry into employment would otherwise provide.

The relationships between population and the economy are often referred to in attempts to fathom the reasons for the record unemployment rate currently hitting Reunion. This figure reached or even exceeded 30% during the period 1993-2006 and is still higher than that of regions in Europe. Population growth is frequently blamed by those in politics as the principal – or even the sole – factor responsible for this situation. However, the départementalisation implemented at the same time as a switch from a sugar-industry based economy towards a service economy, in the space of scarcely a few decades, no doubt played a predominant role in the building-up of such a high unemployment rate.

Examination of the current and future structure of Reunion’s population suggests that the political discourse which condemns population growth could nonetheless be turned completely around because the proportion of active individuals within the population as a whole will reach its maximum over the next two decades. Government authorities and investors could take advantage of this opportunity to give impulse to economic production. Then by encouraging savings and investment, the island would find itself in its “demographic golden age”, according to the expression the economists use.

Throughout the history of Reunion’e settlement, migration flows have played a significant role in the successive phases of rise or fall of its population. Present-day migration episodes, which take place more spontaneously, have become much more unpredictable. The theories used for the demographic projections, and notably those concerning migrations, which remain extremely difficult to formulate, postulate that from the time of writing to 2030, between 0 and 3500 new arrivals could come on to the jobs market each year, compared with 7000 at present.

The sustained population growth currently experienced by Reunion must not therefore be too hastily perceived as a drawback to the island’s economic development. The rise in population density will call for structural adaptations, whether it be of housing (higher-rise collective blocks no doubt being necessary progressively to replace individual family houses) or of road infrastructure which could provide more room for mass public transport. However, at a moment when many Western countries are concerned about stagnation or even decline in their population numbers, Reunion with its population growth could draw benefit from the situation as a way to give second wind to its economic and social model.

1. This research work was conducted jointly with demographers from the Reunion Direction régionale des affaires sanitaires et sociales (DRASS) (‘Regional Department of Health and Social Affairs’), the French Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED), the Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Economiques (INSEE) and the Université René Descartes, Paris.

Grégory Fléchet | alfa
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