Diffusing the Population “Bomb”

Demography and Security

At first glance, it seems accurate to attribute the Darfur Conflict (2003-2009) to ethnic and religious tension. Sudan (including what is now South Sudan, since the countries officially split in 2011) is home to both Arab and non-Arab (black) citizens, and Muslim, Christian, and animist followers. Indeed, clashes have been along ethnic and religious lines.

Over the past decade, however, the grasslands of the northern Sahel—a semiarid region that stretches across Africa from Senegal to Sudan—have turned to desert, pushing nomadic Arab herders south, into the tropical savanna region historically inhabited by black subsistence farmers. Government troops supported Arab militias in driving these farmers off their land, slaughtering entire villages in the process.

Though declining rainfall due to climate change and overgrazing are responsible for the expansion of the Sahara desert into the Sahel, it was Sudan’s spectacular population growth that set the stage for environmental and societal collapse. From 1950 to 2007, Sudan’s population ballooned from 9 million to 39 million, and the number of livestock grazing in northern Sudan increased from 21 million to over 150 million. As rainfall decreased and livestock ate the remaining vegetation, the desert quickly advanced, pushing Arab herders toward new grazing lands.

The crisis in Darfur had roots in a complex confluence of social, environmental, and historical forces. However, it is undeniable that rapid population growth contributed to the tragedy that left at least 300,000 people dead and destabilized the entire region.

Fragile States

Each year, Foreign Policy and the Fund for Peace jointly publish the Fragile States Index ranking the world’s most vulnerable countries. These states—characterized by weak governance, lawlessness, and internal conflict—typically have high rates of population growth. In 2017, world population expanded at a rate of 1.12 percent. Of the top 20 failing states, 19 have higher-than-average rates of population growth, with some states experiencing growth of over 3 percent. In nine of these countries, women have an average of five or more children. This rapid growth overwhelms the very economic development that could help countries transition to lower birth and death rates.

Youth Bulges

Unemployed youth protesting Algeria’s rising food prices and lack of housing clash with police amidst nationwide riots in January 2011. These demonstrations, which often turned violent, took place in the broader context of the Arab Spring revolutions led by disaffected youth against governments throughout North Africa and the Middle East. © 2011 Magharebia/Flickr

A disproportionately large population of young adults (ages 15-24)—or a “youth bulge”—can portend dire consequences for state stability. Rapid growth in the young adult population combined with stagnating labor markets creates social discontent, which threatens security. Youth unemployment rates have risen to double overall unemployment rates worldwide, and are highest in the Middle East and North Africa. Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories have the region’s highest fertility rates and largest youth bulges, with over 40 percent of their populations under age 15 and around 20 percent between the ages of 15 and 24. Over the next two decades, these youth populations are projected to grow at the fastest rates in the world.

This trend is alarming, as countries with youth bulges are 2.5 times more likely than countries with more even age distributions to experience an outbreak of civil conflict. According to Population Action International, between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of the world’s civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent or more of the population was under the age of 30.

“A large proportion of young adults and a rapid rate of growth in the working-age population tend to exacerbate unemployment, prolong dependency on parents, diminish self-esteem and fuel frustrations,” writes Richard P. Cincotta, a consultant to the National Intelligence Council’s Long Range Analysis Unit.

Land and Resource Scarcity

The case of Darfur demonstrates how environmental scarcity combined with population growth can lead to conflict. Desertification of the Sahel has also led to violence in Nigeria, pitting Muslims against Christians; and in Mali, forcing black farmers to contend with ethnic Tuareg and Fulani herders. This competition for land, amplified by religious and ethnic differences and a large number of frustrated young men, has been described as the “combustible mix” that has led to repeated outbreaks of violence. Outside the Sahel, widespread deforestation, grassland deterioration, and soil erosion have exacerbated tensions in the failed states of Somalia and Haiti.

Peacekeepers in eastern Congo supervise children displaced by frequent wars and conflicts in the area. © 2004 Felix Masi/Voiceless Children, Courtesy of Photoshare


Simple Answers, Urgent Actions

The only way to ease potentially volatile demographic pressures is to tackle population growth head-on. Unfortunately, political will to do so has been deficient. International support for family planning has fallen dramatically short of common goals agreed upon in Cairo at the United Nations Conference on Population and Development in 1994. “Population has become a neglected area of U.S. policy, overshadowed by the focus on HIV/AIDS and shunned in part because of religious and political opposition to some family planning programs,” writes the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on Africa.

Women’s empowerment can play a large role in lowering fertility rates in countries still far from achieving gender equality. “The lesson of the last 30 years is that where women are educated and have opportunities to work outside the home, fertility declines quite rapidly—no matter what the religious or ethnic background,” says Cincotta. For example, in Haiti, women with no education have an average of 5.9 children, while women with secondary education have 2.4 children. In Yemen, women with no education have an average of 6.9 children, while women with secondary education have 3.5 children.

Poised for Progress

Both Tunisia and Iran have youth bulges of around 20 percent—the same as other volatile countries—due to high fertility in the 1980s and early 1990s. But their lower fertility rates since then have set their youth bulges on a course to peak very soon and then decline; the population under age 15 is 23 percent in Tunisia and 22 percent in Iran—almost half the percentage for that age group in Iraq, Yemen, and the Palestinian Territories.

In 1964, Tunisia established an ambitious family planning program that incorporated reproductive health care into basic health care. When the program first began, Tunisia’s total fertility rate was over 7 children per woman. It took several decades for fertility to decline markedly, but today, women have an average of 1.9 children—fewer than American women.

The Islamic Republic of Iran began to address its population challenges in the 1990s. The government developed a comprehensive sex education curriculum for high school students and requires all university students to take a course on population and development. Premarital contraceptive counseling is mandatory for all engaged couples in Iran. These programs have been instituted in the face of conservative social and religious pressures, proving that religion does not have to be an obstacle to a strong family planning program. Today, Iranian women have an average of 1.6 children—on par with many European countries.

The Arab Spring revolutions and Iranian election protests that caused such upheaval beginning in 2010 were fueled by young adults—mimicking the youth bulges that have erupted into violence in other countries in recent years. As the age distribution in these countries skews older in the coming decades, they have the opportunity to see swift economic development and a transition to peaceful relationships between citizens and their governments—assuming the right policy choices regarding jobs and political transparency are set in place.

Demographic pressure is not the only factor in state failure, but it makes everything from coping with natural disasters to providing food and water security more difficult. The exacerbating effects of population growth can indeed push at risk societies to the brink of conflict and beyond.

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