“We are now in an unprecedented era of demographic divergence,” said Population Action International’s Elizabeth Leahy Madsen
at a September briefing held by Congressman John Tierney’s Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs and Congressman Russ Carnahan’s Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight.
Eighty percent of the world’s conflicts occur in places where 60 percent or more of the population is under 30
, and 90 percent of countries with young populations have weak governments, said Chairman Tierney in his opening remarks
. He said that while such demographic trends “appear to be issues for the future…it is important that we start this dialogue today, so that we can make steps to address [them].” ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko
and the Stimson Center’s Richard Cincotta
joined Madsen on the panel titled, “The Effects of Demographic Change on Global Security
,” at the Capitol Visitor Center.
Youth Bulges and National Security
The countries of greatest security threat to the United States are also those with the youngest age structures and rapidly increasing populations, said Madsen. By next year, the world’s population will have reached seven billion, with 95 percent of that growth occurring in the developing world.
Large youthful populations can be a source of national strength because they provide innovation and manpower, said Dabelko, but without significant investment they may also contribute to state instability. When there are often few opportunities to obtain a job or an education for young people, there are low “opportunity costs” to joining a rebel group, said Madsen.
State instability can be affected by youth bulges, shifting religious or ethnic compositions, or food and water insecurity, but age-structural transitions are the strongest indicator of state performance, said Cincotta. Despite conventional wisdom, there is actually little evidence to link state failure with premature adult mortality due to AIDS or a high male-to-female ratio, he added.
It is not only developing countries with high fertility rates that face demographic difficulties, Cincotta noted. Countries such as Japan and Germany will soon have reached a “post-mature” age structure in which their aging populations and comparatively small workforces will tax state institutions and threaten economic stability.
Population Policies: Using “Soft Tools” to Improve National Security
Recently, leaders in the U.S. government have been paying increased attention to the linkages between demography and security through the “three Ds:” diplomacy, development, and defense. In 2008, the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 included demographic assessments to analyze security trends, and this year, the National Security Strategy featured demographic trends along with the environment and other non-traditional areas.
Dabelko said that while this growing recognition signals progress, the “hard tools” of the traditional security community must be bolstered with “soft tools” commonly used by the international aid community, such as female empowerment, education, health services and youth employment.
Madsen argued that empowering the 215 million women with an unmet need for family planning worldwide through increased funding for voluntary family planning programs is a cost-effective way to shape population trends and ultimately reduce security threats.
“Demography is not destiny,” said Madsen. “Family planning has been an unsung signature of U.S. foreign assistance for decades.”
Similarly, Cincotta said that policies should help states transition out of youth bulges, and help countries with aging populations reform social institutions to protect older people.
Dabelko added that while progress has been made in acknowledging the linked nature of population trends and national security, there is significant room for improvement. Pointing to the successes of integrated population, health, and environment (PHE) programs, which provide environmental conservation and family planning services simultaneously, he called for similar programs to address population dynamics and conflict prevention. Long-term solutions call for coordinated resources and integrated strategies, he said.
Read the speakers’ full remarks: Chairman John F. Tierney, Richard Cincotta, Geoff Dabelko, and Elizabeth Leahy Madson (slides).
Sources: Guttmacher Institute, Population Action International, National Intelligence Council.
Image Credits: “World Age Structure 2005” and “Risk of Civil Conflict by Age Structure Type, 1970-2007,” courtesy of Population Action International.