JAKARTA Family planning efforts have stagnated in Indonesia over a decade of democratic rule and the world's fourth most populous country risks squandering a so-called demographic dividend that a youthful, productive population should deliver.
Indonesia has failed to meet its target for bringing down the birth rate and its population is set to grow by nearly a third, to 305 million people, by 2035 from 240 million now, the statistics agency said on Wednesday.
But without improvements in education and job prospects, the growing population could become a burden, threatening the growth and development of Southeast Asia's largest economy.
"Indonesia has a window of opportunity between now and 2030, when there will be an explosion in the working age group," said Wendy Hartono, deputy head of the national family planning agency.
"The family planning program needs revitalization ... and we can safely say that if the total fertility rate isn't reduced soon, Indonesia's demographic bonus will not be achieved."
Indonesia failed to meet its 2014 target of reducing fertility rates to 2.1 children per woman, the family planning agency has said. Health officials now hope the target can be reached by 2025.
The fertility rate has been at about 2.4 for the past decade - a significant slowdown from previous years when a centrally run family planning program reduced fertility from 5.7 to 2.5 children per woman over 30 years.
"Since 2000, most of the programs including family planning have been decentralized, which has clearly had some implications for the effectiveness," said Richard Makalew of the U.N. Population Fund, referring to Indonesia's transition to democracy after 32 years under authoritarian leader Suharto.
"People view it as something initiated by the old regime," Makalew said of family planning. "So it seems like participation by both the public and the newly powerful (local) governments in the program is going down."
OPPORTUNITY COULD TURN SOUR
The archipelago of more than 17,000 islands has grappled for decades with population growth, especially on the central island of Java.
A policy known as transmigration, the moving of large numbers of people off Java to remote, more thinly populated regions, began under Dutch colonial rule and peaked in the 1970s.
Millions of people were moved to islands such as Papua and Kalimantan, at times stirring resentment and violence among indigenous communities.
Java, home to more than half of Indonesia's people and its capital, Jakarta, remains its most densely populated island.
More than 65 percent of Indonesians will be of working age in 2035, according to data released this week, a growth opportunity for what has in recent years been a vibrant destination for foreign investors.
But experts say lagging reform in education and in creating jobs mean Indonesia risks wasting the opportunity.
"Not enough has been done to improve education and skills to prepare the work force for employment," said Jim Brumby, lead economist at the World Bank in Jakarta.
"If there isn't sufficient employment opportunities for a growing population, then that demographic dividend opportunity can turn sour."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)