In the nearly 20 years since the infamous intervention
that resulted in the deaths of dozens of American and UN peacekeeping soldiers on the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia has become the epitome of a “failed state.” Neighboring countries, global bodies, and aid agencies are rushing to respond to the country’s rapidly evolving political, security and humanitarian crises.
Diplomatic attention has focused on decentralized, weak governance that is divided among the Al Shabab insurgency, clan warlords, and a hamstrung and largely ineffective Transitional Federal Government, whose control does not extend beyond the capital. Foreign militaries have had to devote naval resources to curtailing daring and far-reaching acts of piracy against civilian and military vessels from networks based in Somalia. Aid groups have been stymied in their efforts to stem famine as access to populations in the hardest-hit areas has been cut off by Al Shabab and food aid has been stolen. Most recently, Kenyan and, reportedly, Ethiopian forces have crossed the border, extending the reach of the country’s political crisis. Hundreds of thousands of have fled conditions of hunger, illness, and violence into neighboring countries.
Perhaps the deepest woe of a “failed state” is that its problems are deep-seated and cannot be solved during the brief span of a UN meeting or the news cycle following the latest terrorist attack. Amid the extraordinary efforts to battle the country’s crises, one of the most important underlying structural factors is often overlooked: the country’s unusual demographic picture.
A Demographic Outlier
Somalia is a global outlier in demographic terms, with rates of fertility (6.4 children per woman), infant mortality (107 deaths per 1,000 births), and maternal mortality (1,200 deaths per 100,000 live births) all above the already-high averages for sub-Saharan Africa. These demographic indicators are both a reflection of the abysmal state of health care in the country and a warning that its economic and security challenges are unlikely to be easily resolved.
Research shows that where at least 60 percent of the population is younger than 30 years old, countries are more prone to outbreaks of civil conflict, and the risk increases as the proportional size of the “youth bulge” grows. In Somalia, 70 percent of the population is younger than 30, a level comparable to Iraq and the Palestinian Territories. With little to no improvements in health care, Somalia’s age structure has remained unchanged over the past 40 years. Unlike dozens of other countries where fertility has declined significantly in recent decades, Somali women have nearly as many children on average today as they did in the 1970s. The current total fertility rate of 6.4 children per woman is only a 12 percent decline from the 1970 rate.
Despite high infant mortality – more than 10 percent of children die before turning one – this sustained high fertility rate has generated rapid population growth, with each successive generation larger than the next. Somalia’s population has almost tripled since 1970, from 3.6 to 9.3 million, although population density remains low (one-third the world average). If the fertility rate remains constant at the current level – not an unreasonable projection considering how stagnant it has been over past decades – Somalia would be home to 33 million people by 2050. Even if the fertility rate drops to near four children per woman, as projected in the UN’s medium variant, the population would still triple to 28 million by mid-century given the demographic momentum of decades of high fertility.
The fertility decline built into the UN’s medium variant projection – which would still place Somalia among the highest total fertility rates in the world by 2050 – is unlikely without steady and major improvements in the country’s health system, particularly women’s health. But with decades of conflict, weak governance and little investment, the environment for reproductive health services is dire.
A recent World Health Organization assessment described “unacceptable levels of unmet need, extreme inequities in access…slow progress…[and] underinvestment and poorly coordinated actions.” Pregnancy and childbirth are major risks to women’s well-being. Somali women have a one in 14 chance of dying from maternal causes over their lifetimes, the second-highest risk in the world. Funding to improve reproductive and maternal health care remains too low to meet demand. The United Nations Population Fund reports that donors spent about $6 million on population and reproductive health programs in 2008, about one-third as much as was spent in Benin and Burundi, which have smaller populations.
The Future for Youth
Instability and violence have become entrenched in Somalia; according to the Armed Conflict Dataset, civil conflict occurred in 12 of the past 20 years. The direct causes of the conflict are typically recorded as struggles for power and resources among competing clans. But in considering the underlying causes of conflict, demographic security scholars have suggested that very young age structures such as Somalia’s can create both motive and opportunity for recruitment into a violent uprising. As ever-growing numbers of young people face adulthood with few prospects for employment, hopelessness or desperation can make them vulnerable to the promise of well-being and identity offered by a political faction or rebel group.
There are 1.7 million people between the ages of 15 and 24 in Somalia today, with another 2.5 million following in the next ten-year age cohort. With opportunities for education, jobs, and equitable participation in society, these youth would represent a promising future for their country. Unfortunately, such opportunities are not afforded to most of them. A United Nations survey found that the secondary school enrollment rate is just six percent, with poverty and early marriage keeping many young people out of school. World Bank data from 2002 show that two-thirds of urban working-age adults and 41 percent of those in rural areas were unemployed. Nearly half of the population lives on less than $1 per day.
Youth Education, Economic Opportunities Could Increase Stability
While global attention centers on the government’s commitment to a new roadmap for peace and the efforts of the African Union’s peacekeeping forces to drive Al Shabab out of Mogadishu, development agencies have recognized demographic security as an important component of Somalia’s future.
The United Nations Children’s Fund is supporting schools for displaced children in Mogadishu, saying in a press release that “providing them with learning opportunities in a safe environment is critical for the country’s long-term stability and growth.”
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has announced plans for a new program called the Somali Youth Leaders Initiative, which aims to improve young people’s access to secondary education and economic opportunities and to increase their civic participation. In designing the program, USAID noted “the recruitment of boys and men by extremist organizations and piracy networks” and “the common perception that an increasing youth population is a potentially destabilizing force.”
As the October 4 bombing at the Education Ministry in Mogadishu showed, young people are often the victims of the country’s instability. Programs such as those of UNICEF and USAID that empower young people to capitalize on their potential should be a greater focus among initiatives to address Somalia’s long-term future as well as its immediate crises.
Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and former senior research associate at Population Action International.
Sources: BBC, Population Action International, The New York Times, UCDP/PRIO, UNICEF, UNESCO, UN Population Division, UN Population Fund, Urdal (2006), USAID, World Bank, World Health Organization.
Image Credit: “Somalia Suffers from Worst Drought in Century,” courtesy of flickr user United Nations Photo/Stuart Price; charts arranged by Elizabeth Leahy Madsen, data from the UN Population Division and World Health Organization.