Elizabeth Leahy is a Research Associate with PAI.
CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden’s recent identification of
population growth as one of three top destabilizing trends currently facing the
world has received extensive media coverage. The director’s comments seem to
have taken many by surprise by singling out demographic trends, rather than
religious extremism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as
meriting a top spot on the intelligence community’s radar screen.
Speaking in the Landon Lecture Series at Kansas State
University, the same forum where Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last fall
advocated for increasing the use of “soft power,” Gen. Hayden highlighted the
challenges that will be faced by some of the poorest and weakest states in the
world—among them Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria and
Yemen—in providing for the needs of their citizens, particularly young people,
in the coming years. The populations of these countries are projected to double
and in some cases triple by mid-century, magnifying already heavy demands on
health care, education facilities and the job market.
PAI and others have been studying the connections between
demographics and security for a number of years. Our 2007 report The Shape of Things to Come: Why Population
Age Structure Matters to a Safer, More Equitable World found that 80
percent of all outbreaks of civil conflict between 1970 and 1999 occurred in
countries in which at least 60 percent of the population was younger than age
30. These linkages are complex, and PAI does not posit a direct cause and
effect relationship between youthful age structures and political instability.
However, as Gen. Hayden discussed in his speech, population trends can
exacerbate the underlying factors that contribute to conflict and strife, as
well as poverty and inequity.
For these reasons, we at PAI were heartened to see Gen.
Hayden’s recognition of the importance of demographics to a comprehensive
assessment of broader trends in security and development. However, absent from
his speech was a discussion of the policies that affect population trends,
which are very dynamic. Progress toward more balanced age structures occurs
when health care improves, leading to lower mortality rates and longer life
expectancies, and when fertility rates fall, which happens when women and men
have access to the services needed to choose their own family size. Chief among
these are rights-based reproductive health care and family planning programs.
In countries as diverse as Mexico and Tunisia where these comprehensive
programs have been made available, infant mortality and fertility rates today
are roughly one-third of their 1975 levels while life expectancies have
increased by at least a decade.
Unfortunately, funding for and access to these services is
still very limited in many parts of the world. Although Gen. Hayden did not
cite it in his speech, Uganda is one of the countries whose population is
projected to triple by 2050—and this assumes that women will be having fewer
than three children on average, dropping from nearly seven children per woman
today. However, recent survey data reveal that 41 percent of women of
reproductive age in Uganda have an unmet need for family planning, one of the
highest levels in the world. Meanwhile, the annual U.S. contribution to
international family planning programs lags far behind global needs. If Gen.
Hayden and other government officials are serious about viewing population as a
factor in international security, their response should start with better
funding and policies for family planning and reproductive health.