You may have heard about President Barack Obama recently lifting the policy that forbade organizations that receive U.S. aid from disseminating information about or providing abortions abroad. What you may not have heard was the praise by many who study population issues in the developing world.
The explosive population growth in parts of the developing world can be tremendously destabilizing. This is because developing countries with large youth populations usually lack commensurate employment opportunities. Besides impeding economic development, this often leads to civil conflict.
Demographers use the term “youth bulge” to describe a population in which 60 percent or more are under the age of 30. Populations with large numbers of young people often end up with rampant unemployment and large numbers of idle, disaffected youth who can be recruited into insurgent or terrorist organizations.
According to sociologist Jack Goldstone and political scientist Gary Fuller, countries undergoing “demographic transition,” or those moving from high fertility and mortality to low fertility and mortality, are especially prone to youth-based violence. As economic development cannot keep up with population growth, young people have a much harder time finding work. Therefore, they stay dependent on parents for longer periods, fueling frustration and low self-esteem.
These things by themselves do not create violence. Yet they do create conditions in which leaders of street gangs, drug cartels, and insurgent or terrorist groups can recruit receptive young people. For those who lack opportunities to better themselves, the risks of joining such organizations are low.
A 2007 study by the advocacy group Population Action International claims that between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts worldwide occurred in youth-bulge countries. Today there are 67 countries with youth-bulges, 60 of which are experiencing social unrest.
Historical examples of youth-bulge instability are not hard to find. One is the French Revolution. A spike in population caused food prices to rise — spurring inflation and reducing the purchasing power of most citizens, which prompted social unrest.
Others are the Marxist conflicts of Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s. The violence there corresponded to a spike in unemployed youth during that period, which subsided as the number of young people in the population decreased.
Today, youth-bulge countries are found mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands. According to Graham Fuller, as of 2004 youth under age 24 in Iraq stood at a staggering 61.7 percent. In Pakistan it was 61 percent. Put into this context, it is much easier to understand the problems those countries face.
The youth-bulge phenomenon shows in part that the problems unfolding in the Islamic world are not due to Islam, but rather to the explosive demographic growth found in many of those countries. It also illustrates the need for broad, all-spectrum family planning to help those countries along the demographic transition.
Coupled with economic development, lower fertility will enable the empowerment of women and will also result in more stability and quality of life.
Christopher Herrin is a graduate Religious Studies major and a columnist for the Daily Forty-Niner.