A youth bulge results in a large reservoir of potential recruits to radical organizations. (AP/Nasser Shiyoukhi)
Societies with high birthrates are prone to conflict, demographers find. That is especially true when there are a disproportionate number of young men between the ages of fifteen and thirty (NYT). The reasons are multifold: This “youth bulge” results in a large reservoir of potential recruits to radical organizations. It helps explain the surge in Taliban recruitment in South Asia, the presence of militant groups like MEND in the Niger Delta, the ongoing tensions in the Palestinian territories, and criminal and political gang recruitment. Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of the world’s civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent or more of the population was under the age of thirty, according to a new report by Population Action International. Countries most prone to youth-bulge-related unrest are in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Africa, where child soldiers are prevalent.
Battle of the Youth Bulge
By Addison Wiggin, Daily Reckoning
How certain large populations of idle young men will likely change the world… for the worse“Between 1970 and 1999, 80% of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60% of the population or more were under the age of thirty… Today there are sixty-seven counties with youth bulges, of which sixty of them are experiencing social unrest and violence.” – Council on Foreign Relations
A surge in youth population leads most nations in one of two directions: Economic boom or social bust. While much of the world is currently focused on the aging populations of powerhouse nations like the US and Japan, certain regions of the world are growing startlingly younger. Social scientists call these phenomena “youth bulges.” By necessity, they take time to play out. But even in these early stages, it’s easy to see what’s coming…and a lot of it is pretty unsettling.
Yemen has captured American attention just a few times in the last decade. The assailants of the USS Cole were from there, and the infamous “underwear bomber” – who was trained in Yemen – tried to spoil Christmas Day 2009. In both cases, we as a nation spent the proceeding weeks tripping over ourselves…searching for answers as to how this came to be, who to blame, and how to stop it from happening again.
But, as usual, few ask “why?” That’s a more stinging question, of course. One of the few easy answers is this: Yemen is overflowing with disaffected kids. An amazing 46% of the Yemeni population is under 16 years old. That’s the highest youth ratio for any nation in the world outside of Africa. By comparison, only 20% of Americans occupy this demographic.
Recipe for Disaster
If there’s a better model out there for youth bulges at risk, we can’t find it. Yemen has been plagued with civil war for most of the last century. 45% of the population lives in poverty. Social mobility is a rarity. Barley half the population can read. Life expectancy is relatively low (60 years old for men). Only 3% of the land is arable and most of the nation suffers a constant shortage of potable water.
What little land and water is available for agriculture is mostly used for growing khat – the same amphetamine-like narcotic that helped turn Americas’ brief occupation of Mogadishu into “Black Hawk Down.” The drug is hugely popular in Yemen, where as much as 90% of men chew it everyday. A headline of a recent TIME article gives the addiction credence – “Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death?”
The icing on Yemen’s sheet cake of problems: The nation’s one great source of income – oil, which accounts for 75% of government revenue – will likely run dry by 2020. In other words, the country has less than ten years to completely reinvent its economy.
Yet despite it all, the Yemeni population has doubled since 1975 to 22 million, now the second most populous nation in the Arab peninsula. Today, the average woman in Yemen has 6.5 children.
Why the West Should Listen Up
Does Yemen’s “youth bulge” matter to the Western world? Ask the passengers of Northwest Airlines Flight 253, or seamen of the USS Cole, or all the travelers, soldiers and businesses that will be affected by subsequent policies.
Yemen’s porous borders, lack of police force, predominantly Muslim population and disaffected youth are ideal breading grounds for Islamic radicalism. Yemen was second only to Saudi Arabia in the number of soldiers sourced to fight the USSR in Afghanistan in the ’80s…the very group of soldiers that would one day form a group called “Al Qaeda.”
Any government or business that plans on sailing through the Red Sea should take notice. Other than sailing around Africa, there is simply no way to connect the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea without brushing up against Yemen. Its narrow Mandab Strait is the only way into the Red Sea and Suez Canal. Over 3.3 million barrels of oil pass through this strait every day, roughly 7% of daily global tanker loads.
Worse yet, what can be said for Yemen is hardly dissimilar from many of its Middle Eastern neighbors. At least 40% of the populations of Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Oman are under 14 years old. In the whole Middle Eastern region, 65% of the population is under 30. Suffice to say many are struggling with plights themselves…food and water scarcity, peak oil, Jihadism, political instability, etc. The same goes for most of Africa, too – though few nations there wield the same kind of petrol-power or propensity for global terrorism as the Middle East.
“The ‘War on Terrorism’ promises to be expensive,” Bill Bonner and I observed in Financial Reckoning Day seven years ago, “simply because there are so many potential terrorists to fight. Westerners constitute a decreasing minority of the global population: In 1990, they amounted to 30% of humanity; in 1993 that number had dropped to 13% and by 2025, following current trends, the percentage will fall to 10%. At the same time, the Muslim world is growing younger and increasing in numbers.
“In fact, Muslims’ market share of the global population has increased dramatically throughout the twentieth century and will continue to do so until the proportion of Westerners to Muslims is inverse that of the 1900 ratio. By 1980, Muslims constituted 18% of the world’s population and, in 2000, more than 20%. By 2025, they are expected to account for 30% of world population.”
Thus, like the Protestant Reformation, the French Revolution, the Iranian Revolution or even the “free love” ’60s here in the US – a very large, disaffected population in the Middle East is coming of age. If social and political conditions there remain the same – and we see little reason why they wouldn’t – the worst from the region is likely yet to come. And if the social and political scene there deteriorates – with the help of peak oil, religious wars and constant Western intervention – darker times are practically guaranteed.
» » » » [Daily Reckoning]
The Effects of ‘Youth Bulge’ on Civil Conflicts
Lionel Beehner, Council on Foreign Relations
April 27, 2007
A new study by Population Action International (PAI), a Washington-based private advocacy group, suggests a strong correlation between countries prone to civil conflicts and those with burgeoning youth populations. Social scientists label this demographic profile “youth bulge,” and its potential to destabilize countries in the developing world is gaining wider acceptance among the American foreign policy community. The theory contends that societies with rapidly growing young populations often end up with rampant unemployment and large pools of disaffected youths who are more susceptible to recruitment into rebel or terrorist groups. Countries with weak political institutions are most vulnerable to youth-bulge-related violence and social unrest.
What are the origins of this theory?
The term was coined by German social scientist Gunnar Heinsohn in the mid-1990s but has gained greater currency in recent years, thanks to the work of American political scientists Gary Fuller and Jack A. Goldstone. They argue that developing countries undergoing “demographic transition”—or those moving from high to low fertility and mortality rates—are especially vulnerable to civil conflict. “A large proportion of young adults and a rapid rate of growth in the working-age population tend to exacerbate unemployment, prolong dependency on parents, diminish self-esteem and fuel frustrations,” writes Richard P. Cincotta, a consultant to the National Intelligence Council’s Long Range Analysis Unit.
While this kind of frustration and competition for jobs do not directly fuel violence, they do increase the likelihood these unemployed youths will seek social and economic advancement by alternative, extralegal means. “If you have no other options and not much else going on, the opportunity cost of joining an armed movement may be low,” says Michelle Gavin, CFR’s international affairs fellow. And because young people have fewer responsibilities, like families or careers to tend to, that makes them more prone to taking up arms. According to Heinsohn, this is especially the case among the youngest sons of a family, who are desperate for respectability and social advancement. “Envy against older, inheriting brothers is unleashed. So is ambition,” writes columnist Christopher Caldwell in the Financial Times.
Between 1970 and 1999, 80 percent of civil conflicts occurred in countries where 60 percent of the population or more were under the age of thirty, according to the PAI report. Today there are sixty-seven counties with youth bulges, of which sixty of them are experiencing social unrest and violence. Demographers are quick to stress that youth bulges do not solely explain these civil conflicts—corruption, ethno-religious tensions, poverty, and poor political institutions also play contributing roles—but nor do they rule out as coincidence the predilection toward social unrest among states with large youth populations
What historical examples buttress this argument?
Historically revolutions are prevalent in countries with large youth populations (PDF), writes Goldstone.
In eighteenth-century France, a spike in population boosted demand for food, which in turn drove up inflation, reduced the purchasing power of most citizens, and sparked social unrest. To some extent, others say World Wars I and II were due to large amounts of young people (particularly in the Balkans circa 1914). Some even suggest Japan’s invasion of China in the 1930s can be partially explained by its large number of youth, while others attribute Marxist insurrections in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s to the swelling population of the region’s unemployed youth (guerilla-related violence quelled as the number of young people diminished).
Where are youth-bulge societies most prevalent today?
Mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, the Middle East, and the Pacific Islands, demographers say. Sixty-two countries are considered “very young,” according to PAI, which means that two-thirds of their populations are under the age of thirty (and less than 6 percent are above the age of sixty). Countries that fit this profile include Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The Middle East, where 60 percent of the population is under twenty-five, is also susceptible to youth-bulge-related civil strife; as are countries with high HIV/AIDS rates. “The pandemic,” according to this January 2006 CFR Task Force report on Africa, “has reversed a generation of gains in human development, hitting young and middle-aged adults of all socioeconomic classes and leaving a dangerous youth bulge.”
What other factors contribute to youth-bulge-related violence?
- Rapid urbanization. This migration pattern plays an important role because cities across the developing world lack the infrastructure, resources, or jobs to accommodate the influx of rural workers. This creates ripe conditions for black-market activities, which in turn often foster gangs and paramilitary groups.
- Heightened expectations among job seekers. The abundance of skilled labor with degrees but no jobs can foment social unrest. “There is a dire mismatch between the skill sets companies are seeking and what most regional high schools and colleges are producing,” writes Coleman about the Middle East. “The result is an explosive combination of millions of young people with high expectations and no hope of fulfilling their dreams.” A corollary to this problem, adds Gavin, is globalization and the images beamed across the world on American television. “We’re exporting this hyper version of material success,” she says.
- Environmental stresses. Youth bulges often lead to degradation of forests, water supplies, and arable land. This can create conflicts over scarce resources and generate antigovernment sympathies. This is a common characteristic of sub-Saharan Africa.
Does religion also play a contributing factor?
Yes. Young people “are often drawn to new ideas and heterodox relations, challenging older forms of authority,” writes Goldstone. But Gavin says “religion can provide an outlet that is constructive and allows youth to build social networks and find a sense of identity.” In the Muslim world, experts say large populations of idle youth are especially prone to virulent strands of Islam as an alternative force for social mobility. Of the twenty-seven largest youth-bulge societies in the world, thirteen are Muslim, according to Heinsohn.
What are some policy prescriptions to combat youth bulge?
- Create jobs. Job creation is particularly important in the Arab world, writes CFR Senior Fellow Isobel Coleman in the Dallas Morning News. “Just to keep pace with population growth,” she writes, “the Middle East must create eighty million new jobs over the next fifteen years.” Fifty percent of the Arab world’s unemployed are between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.
- Improve access to family planning measures. Improved reproductive health care and better access to family-planning measures, such as contraception programs, have proven effective in places like Iran, where births dropped from over six children per woman in 1979 to two per woman today. Better education programs for women can also help control the sizes of families and cause lower fertility rates.
- Reduce infant mortality rates. This can alleviate fears among couples in the developing world that their newborns might not survive, which encourages them to have more children.
- Do nothing. Heinsohn has suggested, using the violence that plagued Latin America as an example, that youth-bulge-related bloodshed often burns itself out once the youths grow up or kill off one another. “In a few decades, the era of youth-bulge wars could be over,” writes the Financial Times’ Caldwell. Yet as Silvia Azzouzi of the International Relations and Security Network, a Swiss research organization, asks: “Even if Heinsohn is right with his argument, is it ethically arguable to let people kill each other in order to reach social calm?”
How does the youth bulge affect U.S. foreign policy?
According to the CFR Independent Task Force on Africa, “Population has become a neglected area of U.S. policy, overshadowed by the focus on HIV/AIDS and shunned in part because of religious and political opposition to some family planning programs.” Many health experts agree. “Because of sensitivities surrounding the kinds of issues stressed in the Mexico City policy [which bans recipients of U.S. aid from advocating or performing abortions], overall support for family planning and reproductive health services has diminished,” says Gavin. Cincotta and Goldstone suggest that youth bulges—and linkages in general between demography and civil conflict—should force a reexamination of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Fragile States strategy (PDF), a January 2005 plan that focuses developmental assistance on conflict-prone states.
» » » » [Excerpt: Council on Foreign Relations]
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