A 'BRIC' Breakdown: Explaining the Emerging Economies' Growth

A look at the demographic trends driving the countries of Brazil, India, and China


flickr; Wikimedia Commons

When China released its 2010 census figures at the end of April, the bulk of media coverage seemed to dwell on the "getting old before it gets rich" theme a possible reforms to the infamous one-child policy (for example, here). Since I have little else substantive to add on these fronts, I thought it might be interesting to instead compare demographics among the BRIC countries

The term BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) was, of course, coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O'Neill. It was meant to denote several emerging economies with good growth prospects, but the term took on a life of its own--spawning a kind of obsession with these four major economies. China even held a recent "BRIC summit" to great domestic fanfare--perhaps hoping to imbue a loose grouping of countries with a modicum of geopolitical legitimacy. Metamorphosis of the term aside, the BRIC countries happened to release their census data around the same time. Well, it's really "BIC" since I couldn't find Russian census figures (but you can read about it here).

So do these countries' demographics reveal much, if anything, about their future growth prospects? Or perhaps why some are performing better than others currently? Here is a quick and rough comparison.

Total Population
  • China: 1.34 billion
  • India: 1.21 billion
  • Brazil: 190.7 million

Decadal Population Growth
  • China: 74 million, or 5.4%
  • India*: 181 million, or 17.6%
  • Brazil: 21 million, or 12.3%
*India added roughly a Brazil to its population in 10 years! Meanwhile, Brazil added an Australia to its populace.

Gender Breakdown
  • China: male 51.3% vs female 48.7% (ratio 105/100)
  • India: male 51.6% vs female 48.4% (ratio 100/94)
  • Brazil*: male 49% vs female 51% (ratio 96/100)
*cool interactive graphic of Brazil's gender balance projections

Age Composition
  • China:  
                 Age 0-14 = 16.6%, down 6.3 percentage points

                 Age 60+ = 13.3 %, up 2.9 percentage points
  • India*: 
                 Age 0-6 = 13%, down 2.9 percentage points
  • Brazil: 
                 Age 0-14 = 24%, down 5.6 percentage points

                 Age 60+ = 10.8%, up 2.3 percentage points

*peculiarly, India doesn't seem to include different age brackets

Literacy Rate
  • China (age 15+): 96%, up 2.6 percentage points
  • India: (age 7+): 74%, up 10 percentage points
  • Brazil: (age 10+): 91%

  • China: 49.7%, or 666 million, up 13.5 percentage points
  • India: ~30%, or about 400 million (couldn't find specific census figure, but saw this report)
  • Brazil: 84.4%, or 161 million
This is, of course, by no means comprehensive--just some of key figures that matter in terms of sustainable economic growth. Brazil's demographics seem fairly solid, though creep into the older age zone. It is also highly urban, much more so than both India and China. This suggests that unlike the two Asian giants, who will find growth drivers in continued urbanization, Brazil's growth will have to reside in other areas. It still has plenty of natural resources.

Comparing China and India, as many have done and continue to do, the figures seem to tip in favor of China, at least probably over the next decade. Especially in the near term, China still seems to be able to rely on its "demographic dividend"--with its working population (15-64) apparently hitting one billion people in 2010. But there is no question that China seems to be aging faster than expected, as it gradually exits its "youth bulge."

But India is also seeing a slight reduction in the 0-6 age population, though without other age brackets, it's hard to determine its pace of aging. India's total population is also growing three times faster than China's and contained within a land mass that's roughly just one third of China. How these trends will tax land and resources in India, perhaps even more so than in China, remains to be seen.

I am no India or Brazil expert, but these latest statistics are certainly interesting to chew on in a comparative perspective. I am sure many more implications can be drawn, but I will leave it here for now.

Additional resources on various countries' census:
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Damien Ma is a fellow at the Paulson Institute, where he focuses on investment and policy programs, and on the Institute's research and think-tank activities. Previously, he was a lead China analyst at Eurasia Group, a political risk research and advisory firm.

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