The Missing Link in Understanding Global Trends? Demography

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Population density. Data from the G-Econ project
Image: Anders Sandberg/Flickr

This article was originally published on 11 August 2014 by New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) at the Wilson Center.

Since the end of World War II, a number of the world’s most dramatic political events have resulted from demographic shifts and government reaction to them. Despite this, political demography remains a neglected topic of scholarly investigation.

I was recently given the opportunity to serve as guest editor for International Area Studies Review, pulling together a series of articles that redress this neglect by engaging a number of critical demographic dynamics both within and across states.

Demographic momentum, if understood, can provide considerable insight into the world’s economic, political, and social future. Children under five today will be workers, parents, soldiers, and voters by 2030, and will make up the world’s political elite by 2050. Already we can document rapid and diverse shifts.

In some places we are witnessing continued growth of young populations, while in others it is the elderly that are increasing most rapidly. Urbanization is accelerating at a rate never before seen. Furthermore, as most states are multinational, differential rates of growth and migration mean that the race, language, and faith of populations are changing as well. For states, these population dynamics have a profound impact on economics, governance, and stability.

The essays in this special issue address a number of these changes and their political, economic, and social implications locally, regionally, and globally.

Population Trends

We start with Michael Teitelbaum’s essay, which provides a critical historical review of political demography, which he believes has been subjected to punditry and exaggeration. This has led to fear and excessive claims about the current state and future of the world’s populations. For Teitelbaum the antidote is for scholars to employ their knowledge and analytical techniques to capture accurate projections of population trends in order to provide much-needed corrections and counter excessive claims about future trends. He explains, for example, the need to educate people about the difference between projections and predictions, with an aim towards putting to bed the tired claim that “demography is destiny.”

It is to current and future trends that Jack Goldstone’s essay turns to next. Goldstone’s core concern is the stability of states.He highlights worrisome trends, including one that indicates fertility rates have stalled in a number of fragile states, creating a situation over the next few decades in which almost all of the world’s labor force will be located in states with little capacity to educate and employ their populations. Unless this trend is reversed, both global economic growth and political stability will be at risk, he writes.

While Goldstone focuses on fragile states and fertility, Brian Grim shifts attention to the rise of religious adherence and increasing restrictions by societies and states on religion across the globe. Relying on survey data, he shows that despite the majority of people today identifying as religious, societies and states have become increasingly hostile towards religious adherents. Whether this increases, decreases, or remains the same he is not sure, concluding his essay by echoing Teitelbaum about the need for caution about projections and trends.

Demography and State Performance

Ragnhild Nordås’ contribution takes us through Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana to explore the different ways in which demography and conflict are related. What’s unique about her contribution is her treatment of the real numbers and perceptions of those numbers. Her comparison reveals that although both countries had similar conflict risk profiles in the early 2000s, only Côte d’Ivoire slipped into war in 2002. Why? Nordås traces the war to perceptions around population changes: a perceived increase in the northern Muslim population created anxiety and fear in Cote D’Ivoire, while a more accommodating policy in neighboring Ghana resulted in greater harmony.

While it was perceptions about a sub-population that led to violence in Cote D’Ivoire, often times it is actual increases. According to Henrik Urdal and Håvard Strand, a number of states refuse to collect or publish data on the ethnic make-up of their populations for fear the results will destabilize the existing political order. Not only is this article the first empirical study of the significance of publishing ethnicity in censuses in relation to armed conflict, but it relates the important role that political institutions may play in mediating such risk. The publication of population data by countries with stable institutions is associated with a lower risk of conflict compared to those with unstable institutional arrangements.

My own essay on the Soviet census of 1979 follows nicely. The census revealed enormous changes to the country’s population, particularly among Muslims, who were growing at a faster rate than their non-Muslim compatriots. These results were so worrisome to Soviet planners, there were fears they might undermine the country’s power, especially as the Islamic revolution rocked Iran and civil war engulfed Afghanistan. Interpreted through the lens of population dynamics, the convergence of these events revealed 1979 to be a critical turning point in the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Political authorities in today’s Russia seem equally concerned about population dynamics. In her article, Jennifer Sciubba examines how demographic decline (Russia is one the fastest shrinking countries in the world) has influenced foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. She investigates whether this decline has resulted in riskier international behavior, as predicted by power transition theory, and finds that when its population decline peaked, Russia was indeed more aggressive.

The final contribution, by Atif Ansar and Martin Pohlers, shifts from the international realm toimplications for domestic policy making. Through a series of case studies, they show how current planning that relies on generic economic models with assumptions about homogeneous populations leads to poor planning practices and thereby wastes government investment in infrastructure. They conclude that a more comprehensive understanding of populations and how they change over time would lead states, both developed and developing, to better investments and development.

In sum, I expect demography will continue to be an important and policy relevant topic, as these essays show. Yet misconceptions and poorly understood concepts will in some cases likely lead to counterproductive or bad policies. Only by building a scholarly community dedicated to sustained and quality research can this situation be redressed, with positive consequences for local, regional, and international outcomes.

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Monica Duffy Toft is professor of government and public policy at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. She is the author of six books, including ‘Political Demography: How Population Changes Are Reshaping International Security and National Politics.’

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