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The Future of Political Demography and Its Impact on Policy

Arab Spring protests in Egypt. Image: AK Rockefeller/Flickr

This article was originally published by New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) at the Wilson Center.

“Political demography is a discipline whose time has come,” said Rob Odell of the National Intelligence Council at a gathering of demographers and researchers in New Orleans. “You can sense this inherent dissatisfaction” with a lot of analytical and predictive tools in international relations, he said, and “political demography provides policymakers a way to think about long-term trends.”

The study of population dynamics’ effects on political affairs, from the stability of states and conflict to regime types, economics, and state behavior, is relatively new. The International Studies Association (ISA), a professional group founded in 1959 with over 6,500 scholars and political scientists today, only added a sub-group for political demography in 2011.

But innovative research and global trends have pushed political demography into the spotlight in recent years. More people live in cities than rural areas for the first time in human history and over the next 30 years, the global urban population will surpass six billion, driven mostly by growth in developing countries, said Henrik Urdal, a researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), at a panel during the most recent ISA meeting.

The Arab Spring, with its images of youthful mass protest, has helped popularize demographic terms, like “youth bulge.” And in Europe and East Asia, fears over aging – its effects on welfare, labor force, even military power – are routinely addressed by senior policymakers, said George Mason University’s Jack A. Goldstone. “Why? Because they’re concerned about demographic decline.”

“Societies are undergoing big changes,” said Monica Duffy Toft, a demographer and professor at the University of Oxford, “and we’re realizing their conditioning environments are important and demography is one of them.”

Thanks to census collection, there is more and better population data available every year, which gives demographers constantly improving tools to work with. Texas A&M University’s Valerie Hudson, for example, has explored ways in which the treatment of women is reflected in state behavior and stability. “You can’t talk about demography without talking about women, and you can’t talk about women without talking about male-female relations in society and how they’re structured,” she said. Hudson, who co-founded the WomanStats Project with Andrea den Boer, has explored the effects of uneven sex ratios on violence and how countries behave differently on the world stage based on gender equality at home.

Besides the fundamental rights-based argument for gender equality, political demography also illuminates a colder calculus. “We can say, ‘look at how impossible it is to get to a modern nation state without doing these things for women,’” said Wilson Center Global Fellow Richard Cincotta, referring to things like access to education, health care, and agency for women. “Political demography screams these things.”

Tunisia Predicted

Despite its seeming applicability to modern challenges, political demography remains a niche field, said Cincotta. “We’ve got some successes, but we’ve got some failures and they’re largely about academia and largely about fundamental understanding of the topic.”

Because of its relatively late arrival to the world of international relations, some are resistant to considering political demography a valid tool, especially regional experts who tend to favor political explanations for why things are the way they are, said Cincotta. “Mainstream IR is still very much focused on relationships between states and treating states like black boxes,” said Goldstone, “they’re very resistant to incorporating internal state dynamics.”

As shown by Philip Tetlock’s work, though, when it comes to forecasting future events, many experts tend to do no better than guessing. By analyzing underlying trends across societies in a quantitative, testable way, political demography offers better predictive tools – at least that’s what recent research suggests. “Demography has a sense of timing, but is short on the detail,” said Cincotta.

In 2007, Cincotta, who has consulted with the National Intelligence Council and Central Intelligence Agency, said he was nearly laughed out of the room by a group of senior Middle East experts presenting at a State Department-sponsored conference after suggesting North Africa would be home to a new democracy by 2020. His conclusion came from examining the relationship between age structure and regime type. By comparing the historical performance of many states, he found that as median age increases, so do the chances for liberal democracy. (The reasons for this are many, but essentially boil down to increasing median age being a reflection of other important changes in society, including improved quality of health care, gender equality, and education.) Tunisia, which has the highest median age in North Africa, was entering a period where it could be expected to become more liberal, despite the apparent strength of strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

In 2015, Freedom House, a non-profit that grades countries on their level of democracy ever year, awarded Tunisia a rating of “free” for the first time.

Teaching the Fundamentals

After the 2010-11 Arab Spring and his Tunisia prediction, Cincotta hoped there would be a reckoning among foreign policy analysts about the value of political demography. But it “had much less impact than I thought,” he said.

Part of the reason may be that political demography is rarely taught in colleges and universities. “The thinking was,” said Cincotta, “if academics don’t understand what you’re talking about, just go around them, go to the policymakers. But that may be flawed.”

Goldstone often ends up giving lessons on the basics of demography during talks. “They don’t know what a cohort is, they don’t know what a median age is,” he said. Odell, whose work with the National Intelligence Council brings him in contact with both experts and non-experts, said “youth bulge” can be something of a trope to some audiences. It’s not always understood that very youthful age structures are not permanent or ubiquitous, even in regions like the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.

A small group of professors, including those who attended the ISA meeting, are trying to change this by adding political demography to the curriculum of introductory international relations and political science courses. “If you teach it, they will come,” said Jennifer Sciubba of Rhodes College, who worked at the Pentagon before moving to teaching. “There isn’t a single course where I don’t draw a population tree because it’s fascinating and [the students] love it.” If the discipline is to become more widely understood, it will start in classrooms, she said.

It’s important to get this right so political demography is used appropriately, said Urdal. “I’ve been baffled by the very negative sentiment towards urbanization,” he said. Most people moving from rural to urban areas are doing it for rational reasons, but governments still tend to see it as a negative trend. “If policies try to make life as unpleasant as possible for rural-to-urban migrants, that’s not very helpful.” In research at PRIO, Urdal said they’re finding growth in city centers, unlike peri-urban areas, is not associated with violence and disorder, suggesting it’s planning and integration for migrants that is most needed from governments.

Demography and migration were one of four “megatrends” identified in the last edition of the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends Report, said Odell, so there are some, especially in the intelligence community, who are interested. It would be helpful to know more about the “dog that didn’t bark,” though, he said – situations where demographic analysis suggests one thing and the reality is something different. For example, why is Iran stable, despite an age structure that suggests a fair chance of movement towards democracy?

There have been some recent steps towards integrating ideas from political demography into U.S. government policymaking, said Hudson. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added basic information about gender dynamics into training for new Foreign Service Officers and USAID employees, and the Department of Defense, through the Minerva research initiative, has awarded Hudson and her colleagues a three-year grant to study marriage, family dynamics, and their effects on conflict in West Africa.

Time horizons, the way we see patterns, makes political demography difficult to understand, said Toft. People want to know when a revolution is going to happen not if. But demand for better predictive analysis is increasing because of big visual trends – urbanization, revolutions in the street, the role of women and girls – and the data is getting better too.

“It’s years of work,” said Goldstone. “I am not discouraged, it just takes time.”


Schuyler Null is the editor of New Security Beat and a writer/editor for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and Maternal Health Initiative.

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