State of the World 2005 Global Security Brief #2: Youth Bulge, Underemployment Raise Risks of Civil Conflict

Washington, DC— From continent to continent and across race and religion, the “demographic” of insurgency, ethnic conflict, terrorism, and state-sponsored violence holds constant. The vast majority of recruits are young men, most of them out of school and out of work. It is a formula that hardly varies, whether in the scattered hideouts of Al Qaeda, on the backstreets of Baghdad or Port-au-Prince, or in the rugged mountains of Macedonia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, or eastern Colombia.

Recent studies have shown that a large “youth bulge”—usually defined as a high proportion of 15-to-29 year olds relative to the adult population—is associated with a high risk of outbreak of civil conflict. This youthful demographic is found principally in countries in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, but also in parts of the South American Andes, Central Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In these regions, where average family size tends to be large, boys grow up in youth-packed neighborhoods where parental authority in the home can take a back seat to the power of adolescent males on the streets.

This surge of adolescents virtually guarantees that the number of schooled youth will outpace job growth, leaving even educated young men underemployed, frustrated, and resentful of those who enjoy the opportunities they lack. While not the overt cause of armed conflict, these demographic factors can facilitate recruitment into insurgent organizations and extremist networks or into militias and political gangs— now among the major employers of young men and the main avenues of political mobility in weaker countries.

Comparisons of data on population and warfare reveal that countries where young adults make up more than 40 percent of the working-age population are nearly 2.5 times more likely to experience a new outbreak of armed civil conflict than countries with lower proportions of young adults. And because a youth bulge usually occurs in rapidly growing populations where fertility is high, where women have low status, and where vital services are limited, a youthful demographic is often accompanied by other potentially destabilizing demographic forces and adverse social and economic conditions. For example, nearly all of the countries with a large youth bulge are also undergoing a rapid rate of urban growth (more than 3 percent per year), contributing to urban decay and sprawling slums.

Meanwhile, several youth-bulge countries have, through decades of rapid population growth, driven the availability of cropland and freshwater per person to exceedingly low levels. According to a recent study by Population Action International, nearly half of these countries—with surging youth bulges and rural economies that have lost their capacity to absorb labor—experienced a new civil conflict during the 1990s.

Although firm statistical links between HIV/AIDS and civil conflict have yet to emerge, the continued growth of this pandemic raises several security concerns for the future. In southern and eastern Africa, the onslaught of AIDS-related deaths is whittling down the adult population, exacerbating the effect of an already large and persistent youth bulge. For example, for adult South Africans the risk of dying from AIDS-related diseases surfaces among 20-to-24 year olds, jumps substantially in their late 20s and peaks through the 30s. The premature deaths of teachers, technicians, and professionals—including career military and police officers—threaten to leave behind millions of under-educated and under-supervised young people, many of whom were orphaned by this terrible disease.

Each of these risk factors is related to the demographic transition—a process that all countries either have gone through or are going through, taking them from a population typified by short lives and large families to one with long lives and small families. About one-third of the world’s countries are still in the early parts of their transition, with the average family size exceeding four children per woman. If the high-fertility northern states of India are included, these regions are home to nearly 1.5 billion of the world’s 6.4 billion people.

In the early stages of the demographic transition, women typically work in and around the home, boys stay in school far longer than girls, and the average citizen lacks basic knowledge of and access to vital public health services. By the transition’s end, women have been well integrated into the urban workforce, infant and maternal mortality are rare, and contraception is widely available through public and private channels. Couples with small families save more and invest more in each child’s education. Drops in the birth rate ultimately translate to a slowdown in the growth rate of adolescents looking for jobs and an increase in the population’s average age.

While national security analysts first recognized the significance of the demographic transition during the 1990s, international health organizations and foreign aid agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), have been working with developing country governments and non-governmental organizations to speed this transition for more than four decades. Yet despite considerable progress, programs to promote girls’ education and strengthen women’s rights in the workplace remain under-funded. Although record numbers of young people in the developing world will enter their reproductive years during the current decade, grants to overseas family planning organizations have stagnated.

Today, more than ever, it is time for policymakers to consider the value of these types of foreign assistance programs to national and global security. Why?

► Studies show that countries in the early phase of the demographic transition—including most countries in sub-Saharan Africa and many in the Middle East—are at a high risk of outbreak of civil conflict. With birth rates still high, they are home to exceptionally large proportions of young adults and have seen rapid growth in the number of people eligible for work. Many countries in the middle stages of the transition, including in the Andes, parts of Central Asia, and North Africa, will also continue to experience a substantial youth bulge until they progress further along in this transition.

► Progress through the demographic transition, meanwhile, has been associated with increased stability. During the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of East Asian and Caribbean nations in civil conflict decreased steadily as these countries experienced rapid declines in birth and death rates, and as the average age of their populations rose. These countries were able to accelerate their demographic transitions by improving access to contraception and educating more girls as early as the 1960s and 1970s.

► The significant risks of delaying progress through the demographic transition, and the decades it can take to dissipate those risks, underscore the need for developing-country governments as well as international aid donors to take action now rather than later. This means increasing financial and political support for policies and programs that promote job growth, improve the status of women, and lead to positive demographic changes.

Several policy initiatives could reduce youth-bulge-related risks in the short or long term:

  1. Provide incentives to private investors and promote trade policies and foreign assistance programs that encourage job growth and training for young adults in “youth bulge countries” as well as in post-conflict situations. More job opportunities, whether within or outside borders, could help countries at the early stages of their transitions contain the substantial risks of instability associated with a surging young and jobless population.
  2. Encourage the U.S. Congress to restore USAID to its former leadership role in international family planning. Despite the documented success of U.S. contributions to family planning organizations overseas, appropriations for this program are now below 70 percent of 1995 levels (calculated in constant dollars). Total annual spending on international family planning assistance in more than 50 countries is equivalent to little more than 9 hours of U.S. defense spending. In addition, the current U.S. administration has re-directed funding that would have supported maternal and child health activities through the UN Population Fund.
  3. Work harder to improve women’s status globally. Increasing women’s participation in government, particularly in post-conflict negotiations, could help shift priorities away from armed confrontation and towards human development. International development agencies should scale up efforts to boost girls’ education as well as increase women’s access to reproductive health services and income-generating opportunities. These programs could help change cultural norms and ultimately speed the demographic transition in at-risk countries.

About the author: Richard Cincotta is a senior research associate at Population Action International and co-author of The Security Demographic: Population and Civil Conflict After the Cold War. He is also co-author of the chapter “Examining the Connections Between Population and Security” in State of the World 2005.