LONDON – As they debate how to tackle the threat of insurgency and unrest in Africa, Western leaders could do worse than to consider one of the most important, yet curiously underplayed, aspects of that troubled region – the dangers of rapid, unchecked population growth.
It is no coincidence that in recent decades Mali’s population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of around 3 percent. In other words, the average Malian woman has six children, while the country’s population has tripled over the past 50 years and, according to the latest U.N. estimates, is set to triple again over the next half century.
Such a drastic rate of population growth rate has profound implications.
In particular it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities. Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency, and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats whom they can blame for their woes.
It is of course an oversimplification to blame terrorism and insurgency on any single factor, but look around: The practitioners of these violent ways are also thriving in several other countries that are experiencing comparably high rates of population growth.
Pakistan, for example, is on course to become the world’s third most-populous country by mid-century. It is a country in which poverty-stricken parents have been willing to surrender their children’s education to radical, Saudi-financed madrasas where they are inculcated with a radical anti-Western message. Likewise, Yemen, a major frontline in Washington’s ongoing war with al Qaida, continues to experience one of the highest birth rates in the world, marginally higher than Mali’s.
The link between violence and domestic unrest on the one hand, and population growth on the other, becomes clear from a glance at the U.N.’s World Population Prospects report, published in 2006. Of the 29 countries that were reckoned to be experiencing a population growth rate of more than 2.5 percent, almost all were experiencing high levels of violence, the clear exceptions being Malawi, Togo, Madagascar, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan. You might call this the 2.5 percent rule, since there is a far less noticeable link in those countries experiencing a rate of growth that falls below this figure.
Yet, in the aftermath of the Algerian attacks and the insurgency in Mali, expect to hear an overwhelming silence about the population issue.
There will be much debate about the proper military response by Western powers, their long-term financial commitment, the importance of establishing effective institutions and of eliminating corruption. All these things are of course very important, but on population control, Western leaders will in all likelihood say nothing.
This cultural taboo partly reflects the racial sensibilities that the issue of population growth has sometimes offended in the postwar – and post-imperial – age. In the developing world, many critics have viewed family planning initiatives as an attempt by the white former colonial powers to control a perceived threat from beyond. And in Western capitals, the issue is still sometimes unfairly equated with eugenics, creating an effective no-go area for all but the bravest politicians.
It is just such sensitivities that now need to be challenged. The taboo that continues to surround the issue of population control needs to be cast aside. New, and highly drastic, means of curbing the rate of growth have to be devised and put into practice if this dire threat to regional and international stability is ever to be averted.
In Mali, population growth has – at the very least – already seriously aggravated existing tensions.
Around 3 million ordinary Malians cannot at present feed themselves, and about 175,000 children face death from severe acute malnutrition, a number that the U.N. and various NGOs feel is set to increase sharply in the near future. The longer the outside world looks away from this crisis, the more tragic the consequences of such a failure will be.