Population Matters

Factors behind African instability explored

Factors behind African instability explored

The UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee has issued a report on the UK’s response to instability and extremism in North and West Africa. The report noted that (extracts from the report):

Population growth

17. The countries of the Western Sahel have some of the highest population growth rates in the world and there is no immediate sign that this trend is slowing.20 Niger and Chad have the world’s highest fertility rates (7.6 per maternity-age female in Niger), with Mali and Burkina Faso not far behind. If trends continue, it is estimated that, by 2050, most of these countries’ populations will have more than doubled. Nigeria’s will be 440 million, making it the world’s third most populous country. 21

18. In the last two or three decades, there has also been rapid and largely unplanned urbanisation. Lagos in Nigeria has become West Africa’s first megacity, with a population now estimated at over 12 million22 with other lesser-known cities now following a similar trajectory. Urbanisation creates opportunities, including an opportunity for the growth of an entrepreneurial middle class, and for smaller families, as government economists pointed out to us in Nigeria. However, as we also learned in Nigeria, urbanisation has separated people from their traditional lives, and thrown together communities that formerly lived apart, with unpredictable and sometimes explosive results. Urbanisation means the rich and poor living in far greater proximity than may have occurred in the past, giving rise to the greater awareness of relative deprivation that, some of our witnesses argued, was a major catalyst of radical self-politicisation, leading in turn to a greater risk of political instability.23

and that:

Fragility, instability and demography

154. As we outlined in chapter 2, the demographic pressures in the Western Sahel are considerable. High fertility levels have a huge impact on a country’s economic performance. Apart from a few oil-rich states, no country has got itself out of poverty without first stabilising its population growth.248 DFID has made extending the availability of family planning in the developing world one of its key policies, committing itself to a target of making contraceptive choice available to 24 million more women and girls in the developing world.249 DFID also co-hosted the London Summit on Family Planning in 2012, which, the summit organisers claimed, would result in family planning being
available to 120 million women and girls in the developing world.250 DFID presents its family planning policy as a straightforward matter of extending choice to women and girls in the developing world and does not expressly link it to objectives set out in the Building Stability Overseas strategy, discussed above. However, a number of commentators and experts have made an express link between extremism and instability and rapid population growth, stating there is clear evidence of a strong correlation. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission, tasked by the US Government with, amongst other things, determining the drivers behind the 9/11 attacks, commented that:

By the 1990s, high birth rates and declining rates of infant mortality had produced a common problem throughout the Muslim world: a large, steadily increasing population of young men without any reasonable expectation of suitable or steady employment—a sure prescription for social turbulence. Many of these young men, such as the enormous number trained only in religious schools, lacked the skills needed by their societies. Far more acquired valuable skills but lived in stagnant economies that could not generate satisfying jobs.251

155.Many would argue that little has changed. One of our witnesses, Professor Paul Rogers, attributed much of the recent radicalisation in the Arab World to a “demographic bulge” of over-educated and under-employed young men.252 It is concerning to note that, whilst this bulge is starting to decrease in size across North Africa, as families grow smaller, there is little sign of any deceleration in the Western Sahel.253 However, a number of interlocutors on our African visits disputed the premise that current rates of population growth give rise to any significant concerns, in any field. Other witnesses have said that such are the sensitivities around this issue that, if population growth is a problem, then it is primarily for Africans to solve it.254 In this connection, we note that, in some parts of the Western Sahel, perceived Western “interference” in the health of the female population has cost some people their lives at the hands of Islamist extremists.255

156. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DFID, Lynne Featherstone, told us that she was not aware of evidence of any direct correlation between population growth and instability but commented that “I can see that if you have a lot of people with no food and no education, you are likely to get instability.”256 We asked the FCO whether they were prepared to be more forthright. Tim Morris of the FCO’s Sahel Task Force told us that the FCO did not have a programme for dealing with demographic change, but acknowledged that the FCO did recognise it as a concern:

What we are trying to look forward to or to analyse in the future is the scale of the potential problem and how the very fact of demographic change is going to put further pressure on migration and illegal migration – how it itself risks being a source of instability in the region. It is an immensely serious factor among a number of factors.257

157.We agree that population growth is likely to be a source of instability in the Western Sahel. Indeed, we would argue that that point has already been reached. As discussed earlier, evidence-gathering on this inquiry has confirmed to us environmental factors can create the conditions for instability and extremism to thrive, and for elements within societies to become radicalised. It is only common sense to suggest that very high population growth in countries already dealing with poverty, low economic activity, ethnic or religious tensions, and increased pressure on natural resources, is likely to make a bad situation worse.

158. There is clear evidence that high population growth in the developing world is often linked to political instability and to the spread of radical or extremist views. We suggest that recent events in the Western Sahel may provide further evidence of that correlation. While we are concerned that DFID do not acknowledge this link, we commend the UK Government for prioritising increased access to family planning in the developing world and call on it to ensure that the issue remains on the international agenda. We appreciate that future work in this area requires to be handled with sensitivity and with the full cooperation of African partners.


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