Dollars and Sense: Invest to Prevent Political Instability
December 19, 2017
By Kaja Jurczynska and Jay Gribble
This blog was originally published on the Huffington Post.
In recent months, attacks in Niger and Egypt have caught media attention, but an explosion in October in Somalia's capital of Mogadishu left more than 300 casualties—receiving little attention, but highlighting that Africa is the new battleground for extremism activities.
Social problems, including home-grown terrorism, usually start slowly—like a cut that becomes infected, they fester over time—often leading to a serious, sometimes life-threatening situation. Hard as we may try, complex social problems cannot always be prevented. Recognizing this fact, we must take necessary precautions to minimize the risk of a bad outcome. Addressing a social problem can require long-term solutions, and there’s no certainty that the solutions will work. And, like any complex issue, we need to understand the root causes of a social problem, and make hard decisions to correct them.
Countries that have a young population can face a range of complex social issues. A youthful population does not just appear overnight, and addressing the accompanying challenges can be a slow and difficult process. With sustained high levels of childbearing and reduced child mortality, many countries’ populations grew rapidly, with the number of young people ballooning. These population dynamics of high fertility and lower mortality originally emerged in the 1960s as affordable prevention and treatment for measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia became widely available.
The field of political demography considers the drivers and implications of the relationships between population dynamics and patterns of political identities, conflict, and governance. While political demography may seem hard to grasp from a theoretical point of view, when we think about the practical lessons stemming from this field, many of them make a lot of sense. When we consider some of the world’s movements in conflict, instability, and extremism, it’s not surprising that many have emerged from countries, or even specific minority regions, with a large share of young people who are poor, uneducated, and/or marginalized. Whether it be Boko Haram, the Lord’s Resistance Army, al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, we can see some common underlying demographic characteristics through which these movements have come to rise.
According to political demographers, geographies that have large shares of young people are more likely to experience various forms of political violence. Working-age young adults in places characterized by low employment prospects, social services, and educational opportunities are more susceptible to recruitment by rebel or extremist groups. In fact, during the last three decades of the 20th century, 80% of civil conflicts occurred in countries with very young age structures.
While a young population does not equate to armed conflict or violence, unemployed youth are more likely to look for social and economic opportunities in alternative ways. According to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Michelle Gavin, “If you have no other options and not much else going on, the opportunity cost of joining an armed movement may be low.” When we consider that young people are less likely to have families or careers—especially in these settings, we can see why they are more willing to take up arms. Noted sociologist Gunner Heinsohn asserts that even within families, the younger sons are often left without family resources or career options, and may take on political or religious ideologies, thereby contributing to social unrest, war, or terrorism. But with the right investments and commitments, fertility can decline and populations can transition toward an older age structure that can be better harnessed for economic growth.
While still in the early years of the 21st century, Palladium is carrying out studies on age structure and political instability in two countries: Pakistan and Guatemala, as part of projects funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Each country represents a unique demographic case with overlaying political instability. Pakistan, for example, has a large and young population, but the weak education systems, coupled with the spread of religious schools, contribute to a degree of extremism whereby many youth prioritize their religious identify over their national one.Guatemala, on the other hand, faces instability stemming from “widespread poverty and severe inequality”, coupled with insecurity, unemployment among out-of-school youth, violence, and corruption. Results of the studies will inform youth development and reproductive health strategies, behaviour change approaches, and economic policy, identifying investments that diminish political tensions and lead to positive impact.
That being said, social problems related to population age structure don’t arise quickly, nor are they quickly resolved. Yet addressing the needs of youth—education, jobs, and health—are critical to helping individuals and nations overcome challenges and achieve their potential. Addressing the needs of youth requires both near-term and long-term solutions. Increased availability of jobs can allay one of the factors that links a young population age structure to political instability. At the same time, the lessons from political demographers suggest that it is also critical to address underlying demographic trends that foment social unrest in the first place.
Efforts to create employment for youth can help mitigate in the near term against the political instability. Palladium’s work on the USAID-funded ‘Improving Access to Employment program’ in El Salvador created a pathway for otherwise vulnerable and disconnected youth out of the informal economy into permanent jobs in the formal sector. After the proof of concept was established, the businesses employing these youth saw the value of these trainings and opted to invest and scale them, ultimately creating a virtuous cycle of sustainability and pathway out of poverty and extremism for youth.
Longer-term investments to transition the population age structure are also critical to fostering a stable political environment. The U.S. government has long recognized the many socio-economic benefits of family planning. Modern contraception can help address the strains associated with youthful, rapidly growing populations. Increasingly, women and couples realize that with smaller families, their limited resources allow a deeper investment in each child, allowing them to grow into healthier and better educated adolescents and adults. Globally, the number of children born to a woman, as well as the ideal family size, are both declining—and in most developing countries, those declines have been significant. Yet disparities still exist in all countries—even in the industrialized nations of the global north, and social trends do not necessarily move evenly through all segments of a society.
Family planning won’t address population age structure and solve issues related to social unrest overnight, but working to support changes in the population structure is a critical step toward resolving many socioeconomic concerns and creating environments for inclusive growth to take hold. Giving women and couples the education, services, and supplies to voluntarily space and limit childbearing is a key long-term investment that will contribute to social stability. Family planning certainly won’t undo these problems alone, but the problems also won’t be corrected without access to and use of contraception.
These investments are good for the women and couples who benefit from having smaller, healthier families. But they are also good to the interest of the U.S. government and public. As the world continues to struggle with extremism and civil unrest, we should also focus attention on how to prevent these problems in the first place. Investing in slowing population growth, diminishing demographic divides among regions, transitioning population age structures, and contributing to healthier and more stable global neighbors—who also serve as trading partners, allies, and consumers of U.S. products and services—is good for everyone. Compared to the massive expenditure we face with military expansion, the funding needed to address this underlying, fundamental issue is a drop in the bucket. For relatively few dollars, it’s time we use good sense to invest in the things that really matter.