Reporting on Population Action International’s
latest report, The Shape of Things to Come
, The New York Times’
Celia W. Dugger calls the link between young age structures and conflict “no simple coincidence,”
observing that Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo all suffer from bad governance, violent conflict, and young populations. Retired Army Major General William L. Nash sets the scene with military efficiency:
You’ve got a lot of young men. You’ve got a lot of poverty. You’ve got a lot of bad governance, and often you’ve got greed with extractive industries. You put all that together, and you’ve got the makings of trouble.
Shape concludes that youthful populations (countries where up to two-thirds of the population is below 30 years old) are most likely to present hurdles to political stability, governance, and, in some cases, economic development. For example, between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts (those with 25 deaths or more) occurred in countries where 60 percent of the population was under 30 years old. In contrast, countries with an older age structure had only a 5 percent chance of civil conflict in the 1990s. Increased access to family planning and reproductive health, as well as improved rights for women—legal, educational, and economic—can help countries avoid demographic problems, the report says.
While Dugger’s explanation of the link between youthful populations and conflict is strong and succinct, she does not delve into the nuances of demography that are not so simple, but yet just as illuminating. Shape also focuses on other countries along the “demographic transition”— a population’s shift from high to low rates of birth and death—including “youthful” South Korea, “mature” Germany, and “transitional” Mexico and Tunisia. Some countries are impossible to classify strictly by age structures, including the United Arab Emirates, where large numbers of young men are immigrating for work; and sub-Saharan Africa, where HIV/AIDS is killing adults and children alike.
This report, as well as the PAI’s 2003 The Security Demographic, was released in a political environment increasingly concerned with the negative economic consequences of low fertility—the “birth dearth”—in developed countries, which has led Russia, France, and Iran to offer financial rewards for women that have more children. In addition, other recent reports have focused on the “demographic dividend” that developing countries could harness by taking advantage of the ingenuity and additional labor of youthful age structures. Many developed countries, concerned about below-replacement fertility rates, are thus not noticing or remain unconcerned that the population of the developing world continues to grow—and some even consider family planning to have been “accomplished.”
Despite the shifting political landscape, the fundamental arguments for female empowerment and family planning remain the same. Provision of reproductive health information and access to family planning goods and services are development imperatives, and the only way to ensure that women and couples can choose the size of their families. Furthermore, lowering birth rates still has positive economic benefits. The NYT article, while limited in its focus, will help bolster support for such programs, because as PAI’s Tod J. Preston tells Dugger:
The budget realities are such that unless you can show how your programs help achieve larger ends—security, development, poverty reduction, democracy—traditional rationales for humanitarian assistance aren’t enough.