What To Expect When The World’s Expecting

What to expect when the world's expecting?
… resentment, violence, a loss of economic clout and political means, just for starters. Don Cayo explains why policy-makers must pay attention to growth and consequences.

By Don Cayo
Canwest News Service
August 1, 2009

Population growth in Canada and other rich countries may be stalling, but people in many other parts of the world are multiplying like mad.

If trends continue, the United Arab Emirates, for example, will double its population in 15 years. And places as diverse as Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Kuwait aren't far behind.

What this means for us — aside from the developed countries' unique problem of who'll do all the work and pay the taxes when the baby boomers are put out to pasture — is, broadly speaking, one of two scenarios. If the many countries that are struggling today do succeed, we who now dominate the world economy will become increasingly irrelevant. And that's the best outcome we can hope for. Because if the others don't do well, if so many remain so poor, we can expect to be increasingly resented and even targeted violently .

Worse, if the world does grow into an uglier place, the West's ability to protect its interests and to impose order — to put boots on the ground in order to contain regional conflicts, for example — can be expected to diminish at least as fast as our economic clout. Today our failure to do anything effective to stop the horror in places like the Congo and Darfur is mainly due to lack of will; tomorrow it's likely that we'll lack the means.

So Canada must, by all means, focus much more sharply on domestic demographics — the tepid birthrate that's almost 50 per cent too low to maintain our workforce, the reality that immigration will almost certainly continue to fall short of filling our need for younger workers, our weak track record of productivity gains to ease the impact of a rapidly aging workforce.

But it's high time our policy-makers began to pay more attention to population issues in the rest of the world, too. Global warming, global security, global prosperity, even the future of basic human rights, especially for women and children, in parts of the world that can scarcely sustain the number of people they have now — these are all on the line.

There will be no quick fix.

It took from the beginning of human history until 1830 for the world population to reach one billion. It took a full century to hit the two billion mark, then just 30 years to reach three billion in 1960. Then it hit four billion in 1975, five billion in 1987 and six billion in 1999.

This runaway pace of growth means that, while developed countries' populations are growing worrisomely old, our species as a whole is disproportionately young. More than three billion people — 85 per cent of them abjectly poor — are under 25, and about a billion are just entering their reproductive years.

This creates a demographic momentum that makes the population juggernaut very hard to slow or stop.

Jack Goldstone, a public policy professor at George Mason University in Virginia, notes that this age imbalance means substantial growth will continue in places you might least expect. China, for example, has had a fertility rate below replacement for years. Yet so many of its 1.2 billion people are in or nearing their child-bearing years that it will continue to add about 80 million people —

21/2 times Canada's total population — for each of the next two decades until its population peaks.

Most of the 20 largest countries in the world will follow a similar pattern, he says, even though their fertility rates have dropped in recent years.

Meanwhile, growth is unabated in many smaller countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. The birthrate of 116 babies per 1,000 women of child-bearing age in the least developed countries of the world is five times higher than in the more developed regions. And, in a handful of individual countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Liberia, it spikes to nearly 10 times higher.

The upshot is, at best, uneven development prospects for countries, Goldstone says.

A slower-growing country at least has a chance of increasing the per-capita wealth of its citizens through economic development. But any GDP growth in faster-growing places will be overwhelmed by population growth — the very scenario seen today in most of sub-Saharan Africa where the pie grows a little larger each year, but must be cut into many more pieces.

John Richards, who teaches public policy at Simon Fraser University, notes that the stagnant incomes in Africa and the hugely disproportionate wealth of Europe have created immense pressure from overflowing population on the other side of the Atlantic.

“The Mediterranean is their Rio Grande, only wider,” Richards said, in reference to U.S. border issues with Mexico. “In the States we're seeing the same phenomenon but, because Mexico is much richer than sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is not so acute.”

The United States is almost alone among developed countries in that it's expected to add about 50 million people during the next 50 years, mostly because of immigration, not birthrate. But Canada's demographic situation, Goldstone points out, is much closer to Europe's.

“The proportion of the world's population living in Muslim states, or in the very largest and very poorest states, will grow,” he said in a report prepared by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. “And the proportion of the world's population living in developed countries will shrink.”

The implications are immense for everything from global warming — today a child born in a rich country will produce 30 times more carbon emissions and pollution than a child born in a poor country — to competition for resources ranging from oil to water.

The people of the developing world will be fierce competitors if they succeed. Not only will they have the labour force to corner ever more jobs, they'll also increasingly have the money to invest as the growing legions of the West's old folks begin to live off their capital and there are fewer and fewer productive young people to salt it away.

Or they'll be bitterly resentful — and they'll still outnumber westerners mightily — if they don't attain their aspirations.

Such resentment poses very real danger to the whole world, not just the disaffected parts.

True, poverty-driven anger is often first manifest close to home. Elizabeth Leahy of Population Action International notes that the likelihood of civil conflict is four times greater in countries with a very young age structure — and this means a high fertility rate and, usually, a poor country — than in countries with an older population.

But most of the current terrorist threats against the West also emanate from the fastest-growing countries.

Goldstone notes that two-thirds of the world's fastest-growing countries have a substantial Muslim population. They include the odd rich one, most notably the UAE and Saudi Arabia, but also poor and strife-torn countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, which, aside from their internal terrors, serve as a base for many terrorists who consider themselves at war with the West.

So what's the best response for those of us who live, at least for now, in the countries that dominate the world economy? Should we try to haul these guys up to our level of wealth, or something approaching it? Or should we hold them down to make it harder for them to gain the upper hand over us?

“That's a hell of question,” Richards said. “But all of my liberal instincts say we should help to haul them up.”

How? First, he said, by recognizing that bad governance is almost always at the root of abject poverty. And among the first and worst casualties of bad governance are health and education for the masses.

“We have to recognize that the market just can't get health and education right in these countries,” he said. “And their government just doesn't care.

“So we have to get it across to the elites that it's not just do-goodism to care about health and education. They're inextricably linked to economic progress.”

And economic progress seems to be — aside from China's heavy-handed one-child policy in the days before the Chinese economy took off — the best bet to bring down birthrates. With few exceptions, richer countries grow more slowly and sustainably than poorer ones.

But, Richards said, “Population control has to be up front as an explicit component of development, which it hasn't been.”

This is especially true of aid that touches in any substantive way on family planning issues.

Until U.S. President Barack Obama rescinded the Bush-era policy shortly after he took office, critics blamed USAID for imposing a chill on the issue by prohibiting funding for any group connected in any way with abortion counselling. This policy was, of course, supported by the Catholic Church and several other religious organizations that oppose birth control and/or abortion.

The upshot, whether as a result of this policy or merely due to neglect, is that population issues have received only a small percentage of the attention paid to other issues.

Yet, the World Bank says, an estimated 200 million women worldwide would like to prevent or delay pregnancy, but don't have an effective way to do so. In the poorest countries, it says, fewer than one woman in 10 uses such methods.

Reproductive issues have never been a particular priority for the Canadian International Development Agency, the aid arm of the Canadian government. A search for “contraception” on CIDA's website, for example, yields just 24 hits.

And it's logical to expect that these issues will not move up to front and centre on Canada's radar screen any time soon. Just three of the world's fastest growing countries — Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Mali — survived last winter's paring of CIDA's “countries of focus” list to exclude most of Africa and shift attention to Latin America, where the need is not nearly so acute.

While there's nothing wrong with having stronger ties to the developing countries that are close neighbours to Canada, this regional thrust is still short-sighted. While we focus Canadian aid on Latin America, which, except for Haiti, has far less need than most of Africa and parts of Asia, the risk is that the truly poor places will fester into sores that afflict the whole world.

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Our Growing Population

About 20 per cent of the world's population consumes 70 per cent of its resources and possesses 80 per cent of its wealth.

Almost 1.8 billion people worldwide are in their reproductive years, and 87 per cent live in developing countries.

2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day, and more than one billion live on less than $1.

Every 3.6 seconds someone, usually a child, starves to death.

Unsafe drinking water kills a child every 15 seconds.

About 1.1 billion lack access to improved water and 2.6 billion to improved sanitation.

Except for a few oil-rich states, no country has ever risen from poverty while maintaining high average fertility.

About 99 per cent of the world's total population growth is in countries where one in five suffers from malnutrition.

Forests have totally disappeared from 25 countries, and 29 have lost 90 per cent or more of their forested land.