Sunday, March 6, 2011

Somalia's Scoundrels

Though youth have been in large part responsible for the recent revolutions calling for representative democracy across the Middle East, friend and colleague Art Carden recently posed a question on his blog that made me think about the darker side of a youthful age structure. His question--Who should be responsible for stopping Somali pirates--is a good one, since the pirates interrupt commerce, cost their victims millions, and have taken the lives of many, including four Americans in late February. But as I told Art, I think any answer to this question must account for the underlying context within which the piracy takes place.

No matter what the international community does to increase patrols of the Gulf of Aden, or pump money into strengthening Somali governance, until Somalia’s population growth rate slows and jobs are created fast enough to meet extraordinary demand, crime is the most viable way to earn a living for the 66 percent of adults who are unemployed in urban areas (and 41 percent in rural areas). Young adults ages 15-29 are 48% of the adult population, a percentage only 2% higher than Egypt (though Somalia’s life expectancy is much lower, which affects their age structure).

It is no coincidence that these unstable states have similar youth proportions. Many flavors of civil conflict or insecurity are correlated with a young age structure, from protest, to crime, to outright armed rebellion, as I highlight in Chapter 2 of my book. What’s different about Somalia is that, unlike most states of North Africa, fertility there is still extremely high, over 6 children per woman on average. Youth—young men in particular—are the most likely age group to engage in crime, and indeed, Somali pirates are generally young, uneducated, and unemployed. The Somali government--even if they wanted to--does not have the resources to create jobs or pay off the population as many oil-rich states in North Africa did. Even there, though, this strategy led to bloated public sectors that closed out job creation in the private sector. The answer, then, is not simply to ask the government to create jobs—a strategy that only temporarily kept Egyptian youth employed—but rather to create an environment conducive to a flourishing private sector.

Even if Somalia’s fertility rapidly declines soon, it will take decades before the age structure matures to the point where each generation that enters the labor force is not significantly bigger that the preceding. A military response to Somali piracy is expensive; an inexpensive win-win solution to piracy is family planning.