Overpopulation and Political Stability

By Robert Walker | June 2015
Population Institute

Between 1970 and 2007, 80 percent of all new civil conflicts occurred in countries with at least 60 percent of the population younger than age 30. The effect is particularly strong for countries with ongoing high fertility rates.

It has long been recognized that population dynamics can affect political stability. In the past two decades much has been written about the challenges created when a country has a disproportionately large number of young people. The “youth bulge,” as it is commonly referred to, can lead to political unrest, and even conflict, as unemployed youth take their grievances to the street. A “youth bulge” can be a transitory concern if fertility rates are falling, but if a country has a stubbornly high fertility rate and a disproportionately high percentage of the population under the age of 15, the “youth bulge” factor can persist for decades. In South Sudan and Yemen, where 42 percent of the population is under the age of 15, and in Somalia, where the percentage is 48 percent, the demographic challenge is stark.

Demographic projections, while not written in stone, give policymakers an indication of the “shape of things to come,” and the picture presented for many developing countries is daunting, particularly for countries already experiencing high youth unemployment and rising political unrest. In addition to meeting the escalating demand for food, water and other resources, countries experiencing rapid population growth must also create the jobs that today’s cohort of children will need when they reach adulthood. In developing countries with untapped agricultural potential, the farm economy can continue to expand, but in most developing countries farmland is in short supply and youth in rural areas are moving to the cities in hopes, often vain, of finding gainful employment.

Leaders in developing countries want to replicate the success of China and other emerging economies. They hope new industries will emerge and employ the growing influx of young people needing jobs, but much depends on whether the jobseekers are adequately educated and whether the resources needed to sustain manufacturing will be available. If not, urban unemployment will soar and urbanization will become a liability rather than an asset.

In recent decades, persistent poverty, hunger and political unrest have led to political breakdowns in several countries, creating what has been described as “failing” or “fragile” states. A decade ago, the Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine collaborated in the design and publication of an annual “Failed States Index.” Now called the “Fragile States Index,” it ranks 178 nations “based on their levels of stability and the pressures they face.” In compiling the annual FSI, the Fund for Peace reviews millions of documents. After applying highly specialized search parameters, it scores countries based on 12 key political, social and economic indicators and more than 100 sub-indicators

In calculating its scores, the FSI includes “demographic pressures” as one of 12 factors contributing to the final score. Each factor is ranked on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst. Of the 10 states ranked highest on the 2014 FSI, all scored 8.6 or higher for “demographic pressures;” five scored 9.0 or higher. Each of the 20 countries that scored highest for state fragility are experiencing a high rate of population growth. Of those, two have populations projected to triple in the next 35 years, 11 may double their populations and seven will increase their populations by 50 percent or more by 2050.

The FSI, which has ranked countries for 10 years, also provides a useful gauge for determining whether a country is making progress in reducing its “fragility.” In this year’s report, the FSI noted that four countries had suffered “critical worsening” in the past decade. Each of those countries has a current rate of natural population increase of 1.5 percent or above: Guinea Bissau (2.5 percent), Mali (2.9 percent), Senegal (3.2 percent), and Libya (1.7 percent). Of the 10 countries experiencing “significant worsening” over the past decade, eight had a rate of a natural population increase of 2.0 percent or higher; the only exceptions were South Africa and Greece. Conversely, of the five countries that showed “significant” improvement in the past decade, all had a natural rate of population increase less than 1.5 percent.

There are many factors that can contribute to state fragility, but rapid population growth in the developing world is a leading cause. Population growth can strain the government’s ability to meet the needs and demands of its citizens, and high fertility rates today ensure a “youth bulge” in future years when today’s children become adolescents and young adults.

Robert Walker is the president of the Population Institute.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Causal arrow in early part of essay points in the direction of youth bulge leads to political instability. My first question is whether this is the right direction for causality (if effects coherent between these two features at all). We know that socitoes/cultures with instability of any sort (economic, violence, mortality, prone to natural disaster) tend to have high birth rates. Evolutionary thinking would support this as an effective adaptive strategy – if likely to lose kids, have more!
    Percent under 15 is statistic used. Three countries are highlighted as examples -Sudan, Yemen, Somalia. Strikingly, all 3 have had high political instability for far longer than 15 years.

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