State of the World 2005 Trends and Facts - Population and Security

“Demographic forces can exert strong…pressures on a society and its institutions and can have important implications for domestic stability and even international security.”

share of young people in selected countries, 2005 projections Over the past few decades, countries from every major political and religious background and in virtually every region have experienced momentous change in the size and structure of their populations. Yet the global demographic transition—the transformation of populations from short lives and large families to longer lives and small families—remains woefully incomplete. Roughly one third of all countries, including many in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia, are still in the early stages of the transition, with fertility rates above four children per woman.

Studies show that these countries bear the highest risks of becoming embroiled in an armed civil conflict—warfare within countries that ranges from political and ethnic insurgencies to state-sanctioned violence and domestic terrorism. Most are bogged down by a debilitating demographic situation: they are home to large and growing proportions of young people; many are experiencing rapid urban population growth; and many face very low per-capita availability of cropland or fresh water. Meanwhile, the rising pandemic of HIV/AIDS is striking lethal blows to the basic services and government operations of several countries. These conditions act as “demographic risk factors” that can contribute greatly to the cycle of recurrent conflict and political deterioration inhibiting economic and social progress in the world’s weakest and most unstable countries.

The Clash of the Ages

“Where economic opportunities are scarce…the predominance of young adults can constitute a social challenge and a political hazard.”

According to the United Nations, more than 100 countries worldwide had large “youth bulges” in 2000—a situation where people aged 15 to 29 account for more than 40 percent of all adults. All of these extremely youthful countries are in the developing world, where fertility rates are highest, and most are in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.

Many of these young people face dismal prospects. Over the past decade, youth unemployment rates have risen to more than double the overall global unemployment rate. In the absence of a secure livelihood, discontented youth may resort to violence or turn to insurgent organizations as a source of social mobility and self-esteem. Recent studies show that countries with large youth bulges were roughly two-and-a-half times more likely to experience an outbreak of civil conflict during the 1990s than countries below this benchmark.

Large youth bulges will eventually dissipate if fertility rates continue their projected worldwide decline. Already, they have shrunk in much of East Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America. Yet a smaller subset of countries—mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East—have experienced rapid growth in their populations aged 15 to 29. Until these youthful populations decline and employment prospects improve, these countries will likely continue to pose a challenge to regional development and international security.

The Emerging Threat of HIV/AIDS

Since 1981, more than 20 million people have died from HIV-related infections, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. With nearly 90 percent of these fatalities occuring among people of working age, the global spread of AIDS poses a growing security risk to the region.

Rather than provoking direct confrontations over, say, access to AIDS drugs or treatments, HIV/AIDS will likely make its mark more insidiously—affecting industrial development, reducing agricultural production, weakening military and political integrity, and eroding the capacity to respond to chronic domestic discontent and sudden crises.

According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 74 million workers could die from AIDS-related causes by 2015—the equivalent of the loss of an entire country the size of South Africa or Thailand. With an eroded workforce and diminished capacity to plan for and resolve acute and long-term problems, the countries most heavily affected by AIDS risk stalling in their paths toward industrialization, democracy, and the final phases of the demographic transition.

Rapid Urban Growth

“The very features that have made cities in the industrial world prosperous—a youthful population, ethnic and religious diversity, a middle class, and proximity to political power—are potential sources of volatility for many surging and economically depressed cities in the developing world.”

Since 1950, the world’s urban population has more than quadrupled, from 733 million to just over 3 billion, and it is now growing faster than world population as a whole. While urbanization is largely a positive demographic trend, the remarkable rates of growth that many developing-country cities have sustained in recent decades have helped to deplete city budgets, flood job markets, and challenge the adequacy of existing services and infrastructure. Crowded cities can harbor intense economic and political competition among diverse groups and become a locus for ethnic and religious conflict.

According to recent studies, countries with rapid rates of urban population growth were roughly twice as likely as other countries to experience civil conflict during the 1990s. Disenchanted urban youth, whether politicized students or the angry unemployed, are often among the first recruits. Such unrest will likely only increase as the largest cities in the developing world extend further into the countryside. 

In the short term, policymakers should consider programs that improve the quality and capacity of municipal governance, stimulate job creation, and strengthen ethnic-community relations in rapidly urbanizing regions. Over the longer term, however, only the slowing of population growth—particularly in countries in earlier stages of the demographic transition—offers hope that cities, too, will grow at a more manageable and stable pace.

Competing for Water and Cropland

The need to address the underlying demographic forces that drive resource scarcities…is increasingly urgent.”

Many regions of the world are experiencing rapid declines in both the quality and the availability of critical natural resources. More than 30 countries—most of them in Africa and the Middle East—have now fallen below even the most conservative benchmarks for scarcity of either cropland or renewable fresh water. While some countries have reached this situation due to a combination of harsh climate or terrain and a rapidly growing population, others are experiencing these scarcities almost exclusively as a result of population growth.

Faced with this reality, analysts have expressed growing concern about the inevitability of “resource wars” in the coming decades, particularly over fresh water. For the near future, however, the greatest risk will likely be population-influenced resource disputes not between countries but within them. One source of rising tension is the allocation of fresh water among diverse local users—particularly among farmers and the more politically influential and growing set of urban and industrial users.

Studies suggest that the links between resource scarcity and conflict are not as strong as those between conflict and other demographic factors such as urbanization or the youth bulge, in part because many opportunities exist to mediate potentially explosive resource scarcities. Yet for most developing countries faced with dwindling resources and rapidly growing populations, there is little immediate promise of attracting the capital needed to invest in alternatives, pay for imports, or transform land and water use practices radically. In these places, the need to invest in programs that will help to slow population growth is increasingly urgent.

Water Conflict in the West Bank

Competing claims over fresh water could complicate efforts to resolve long-standing conflicts in the Middle East. For more than three decades, Israel has restricted Arabs in the occupied West Bank from drilling new wells for agriculture, while Israeli settlers continue to drill deeper—in some cases causing water tables to fall far below the reach of the Palestinian wells. Since 1967, the proportion of their cropland that Palestinian farmers irrigate has dropped from 27 percent to around 5 percent, contributing to unemployment and productivity loss as well as to a list of grievances against Israeli rule.

Minimizing Risks, Moving Forward

“There is now ample evidence that by addressing key factors related to demographic change, governments could strengthen the security of strategic countries, pivotal regions, and the world as a whole.”

In most cases, “demographic risk factors” do not occur in isolation. Rather, they interact with each other and with nondemographic variables, including historic ethnic tensions, unresponsive governance, and weak institutions, to produce stresses that challenge government leadership and the capacity of countries to function effectively.

But demographics is not destiny. The likelihood of future conflict may ultimately reflect how societies choose to deal with their demographic challenges. Some countries have been able to offset such risks through strong governance, conflict resolution, ethnic mediation, or successful economic policies—including creating jobs in cities, importing critical resources, distributing farmland, and encouraging emigration.

Over the long term, however, the only way to ease potentially volatile demographic pressures will be by tackling population growth head-on. This includes investing in vital reproductive health services, including improved access to family planning and maternal and child health care, as well as promoting policies that help girls stay in school and increase women’s opportunities for employment. Unfortunately, just when the need is most urgent, international support for family planning and related services continues to wane. In 2000, it came only to half the $17 billion goal that the United Nations set in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

Fostering demographic change is not a security cure-all, and moving into the latter stages of the demographic transition is not the only way a country can reduce its vulnerability to instability or conflict. Yet demography needs to be part of the analysis. Helping countries approach the final phase of the demographic transition—a phase in which people live long lives and families are typically small, healthy, and educated and where population has nearly stopped growing—promises to help reduce the frequency of conflicts and bring about a more peaceful world.

Involving the Security Community

There are several ways the security community can take action in addressing key demographic risk factors. These include:

  1. Helping to secure funding for programs in family planning, girls’ education, maternal and child health, and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
  2. Helping to facilitate access to reproductive health services for refugees, civilians in post-conflict situations, and all military personnel via peacekeeping and other operations.
  3. Lending logistical and organizational support to outside groups charged with offering reproductive health care in post-conflict environments.
  4. Helping to ensure that women have the opportunity to represent their own interests and those of their children—in refugee situations as well as during the peace process and rebuilding of conflict-affected countries.
  5. Sharing exemplary HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment programs in the armed forces more widely with military and civilian populations elsewhere.



Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the global “demographic transition”? What are the benefits of completing it, and what are some of the risks of remaining in its earlier stages?
  2. Under what circumstances does having large proportions of young people pose a threat to a nation’s security?
  3. Why is the AIDS pandemic considered a security threat? Describe some of the effects it is having in the most AIDS-affected countries.
  4. Explain why rapid urban growth could have destabilizing effect in some countries.
  5. How strong are the links between resource scarcity and conflict? Give an example of a country that is experiencing resource-related instability.
  6. What role can the international security community play in alleviating the impacts of a debilitating demographic situation in the world’s most instable countries?



Further information as well as the references for this material is available in State of the World 2005.