Jennifer Sciubba Discusses Population and International Development
Zunia: What are some demographic trends international development organizations need to take into account as they develop their future plans and strategies?
Sciubba: One of the biggest challenges to economic growth will continue to be large, young, and growing populations. A large number of youthful dependents strains individual family resources--diverting time that could be spent on paid labor--and strains the educational system at the societal level. An even bigger challenge, though, is creating jobs for large cohorts of youth entering working ages. Development organizations should also be mindful of the relationship between a youthful age structure and civil conflict, and the challenges civil conflict poses to development. For example, countries mired in civil conflict have a hard time attracting foreign investment. Forty-six percent of Afghanistan's population is under the age of 15, meaning that the country has decades of challenges ahead.
Zunia: You mention in your book that one of the most important trends during the next several decades will be the growing divide in age structure between the aging industrialized great powers and the youthful industrializing powers. About 98 percent of the growth in world population during the next several decades will take place in less developed countries. What are some of the implications of this divide?
Sciubba: On an international level, it is likely that global power will become more diffuse as the aging, industrialized states face declining economic growth (or no growth) and the accompanying expense of paying for and staffing a large and strong military. Those countries in the demographic “sweet spot,” those with relatively larger numbers of working age compared to elderly dependents, are already demanding a greater role in international politics. States like China, Brazil, and India have a growing capacity to help with global peace and development efforts, and are seeking a greater role in these endeavors. I think global institutions are going to have to reform to be more inclusive of these rising powers, or run the risk of becoming irrelevant.
Zunia: We have seen a wave of protests in North Africa and the Middle East recently. In many of these countries half or more of the population is below 30. Is there a link between a youthful age structure and conflict?
Sciubba: There is a correlation between youthful age structures and outbreak of conflict, and for some researchers the protests in North Africa and the Middle East were no surprise given the high proportion of young adults. Within political demography, though, I think we have some ground to cover with causation. Our theories tell us a bit about why these protests are happening, particularly those theories that look at the importance of economic exclusion and lack of political expression. The age structures of the countries where protests have broken out are somewhat varied, and so obviously demography is not the only dynamic at play. For policy makers to use the findings of political demography we need to do a better job of creating replicable research and robust theories those policy makers can use to project the likelihood of larger trends in conflict and democracy. In other words, we have a long way to go in understanding the role demography has played in those conflicts.
Zunia: What are some challenges and opportunities presented by the growing urbanization trends worldwide?
Sciubba: There is a tendency to view all demographic trends as inherently negative, probably because it is more interesting, but urbanization has created many opportunities for access to health care, education, and jobs. The world is now more than 50 percent urban (though the definition of “urban” is not perhaps what we all would think of) and will only grow more urban over the next several decades. Urban areas are generally the most prosperous areas in a country and so this should be a welcome trend. Of course, sometimes the pace of urban growth is faster than the government’s ability to accommodate the population influx, and poor planning has resulted in slums in many developing countries. This is a big challenge for developing countries, but one that they are working on and making strides in. Brazil and India, as just two examples, are seeing major turnarounds in some of their slum areas. The recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan shows us another challenge of urbanization. Urbanization concentrates wealth, physical assets, and people, and thus makes these areas vulnerable to destruction by natural means, or by deliberate attack.
Zunia: How can governments and civil society help to shape the effects of demographic change?
Sciubba: In military circles, the role of government in demographic change is a sensitive subject. I still think it is still a worthwhile subject to discuss because the places of greatest interest to the US—and arguably the international community—are those with very high total fertility rates. Given the connection between young age structures and civil conflict, governments and civil society should turn their attention to non-military, long-term solutions like family planning. Unmet need for family planning is as high as 215 million women worldwide. As mentioned, 46 percent of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 15, and establishing peace and stable governance there will be difficult for the foreseeable future. Education and access to contraception will help change the age structure and open opportunities for youth over the long run.