Demography and Conflict: How are they connected?

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By Ellen Laipson – A new study by Population Action International, The Shape of Things to Come, looks at decades of data on age structures of countries, the demographic “shape” of countries at different historic moments and different stages of development. The research divides countries’ age structures into four categories, very young (over 67% under 30, doubling time 20-35 years), youthful (60-67% under 30, doubling time 35-50 years), transitional (45-60% under 30, doubling time 50-125 years), and mature (30-45% under 30,

doubling time 125-2,400 years). It then compares the four groups’ performances on civil conflict, economic growth, and democracy. The results validate our understanding of demography as an important factor in shaping the well-being and stability of states. They also have clear advice for governments.

On the relationship between war and these demographic “shapes,” the study shows that countries in two youngest categories are far more likely to experience civil conflict than the other two categories. Younger age structures facilitate political mobilization and recruitment to extremist organizations, insurgencies or militia that offer a salary and an identity that are not available in the open economy. If combined with poor economic performance, scarce resources, and other problems, these demographic shapes can contribute to political violence and civil strife.

A quick glance at the supporting data, comparing age shapes of all countries in 1970 and 2005, shows that nearly all countries currently in conflict have very young or youthful age structures. Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo all have very young age structures. Some countries that previously experienced violence and instability have moved rapidly through the age structure types, and are no longer in conflict: Vietnam, for example, moved from the youngest category in 1970 to a more mature age structure by 2005.

What does a political analyst take from this? Demography can be a powerful indicator, a tool for understanding fundamental changes in societies; it can help analysts anticipate economic, political and security patterns as countries move from one demographic shape to another. One must be careful to not overstate the predictive value – demography is often a contributing factor, but not a determinative one, to social or political change.

From a public policy perspective, it is also important to understand that there are two different clocks (to borrow a phrase from the Iraq debate), the demography clock and the public policy clock. One moves much more slowly than the other. Development experts understand this better than security experts. The latter want to make interventions in acute situations, and rarely do preventive work that may not show results for a decade or more. Development experts understand the concept of generational change, and do not expect to see immediate change when they work with local actors to improve family planning services within health systems, for example, or work to increase girls’ educational attainment, or reduce female job discrimination.

It’s also important, in the culturally sensitive arena of family size, to ponder what is government’s purview as opposed to social norms? Sometimes the life style and cultural changes that induce age structure shifts happen because of altered environmental, social or economic conditions, rather than because of earlier government interventions. Whether in China, Egypt or the United States, we are well aware that government cannot always override deeply held religious or cultural values, or governments may embrace such values and pursue policies that work at cross purposes with the positive trajectory of the “demographic shape” analysis.

Demographic change also occurs in ways that are not contained with a national narrative of age structure. Refugees, foreign workers, and migrants can all have a profound impact on the demographic shape of a country, and on its prospects for prosperity and peace. This is yet another way in which governments cannot control demographic change, but need to be alert to ways to encourage trends in values and behavior that enhance productive age structures, and to mitigate the humanitarian costs of unanticipated and cross-border demographic change.

For a copy of Population Action International’s study The Shape of Things to Come, please click here.  

Ellen Laipson is President and CEO of the Stimson Center and directs the Southwest Asia project, which focuses on a range of security issues in the Gulf region.

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