The Year Ahead in Political Demography

Top Issues to Watch

Jun 11, 2012

2011 and the first half of 2012 have been a remarkable period for political demography, with theories about the relationships between age structure and governance validated in real time by the events of the Arab Spring. Although such game-changers are rarely predictable, the year ahead promises to be eventful as well, with new demographic research and major policy initiatives on the horizon. Below are brief assessments of some of the top issues to watch between now and next summer.

1. The Evolving Story of the Arab Spring

The Arab Spring was anticipated by few observers, but for a handful of political demographers it was a watershed of sorts. As readers of this blog know, political demography research shows that countries with very young age structures are prone both to higher incidence of civil conflict and – most relevant to the outcomes of the Arab Spring – to undemocratic governance. This nuance escaped many observers of the region’s drama. Violence and conflict erupted not from raging citizens in the streets but from military and militia forces unleashed by autocrats unwilling to cede their grip on power. Young people, and their fellow protestors of all ages, were acting as a force for positive change in their demonstrations against corrupt and unrepresentative leadership. The difference in outcomes across the region, according to Richard Cincotta, can be attributed to the fact that as age structures mature, elites become less willing to trade their political freedoms to autocratic leaders in exchange for the promise of security and stability.

When considered with this important distinction in mind, the initial events following the uprising in Tunisia that quickly spread across the region played out in a neatly linear fashion. Among the five countries where revolt took root, those with the earliest success in ousting autocratic leaders also had the most mature age structures and the least youthful populations.

In Tunisia, with a median population age of 29, one month passed between a fruit seller’s self-immolation and Zine El Abedine Ben Ali’s flight to exile. In Egypt and Libya, where median age is close to 25 years (identified by Cincotta as a threshold when countries are at least 50 percent likely to be democratic), Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Gaddafi took three weeks and eight months, respectively, to lose their titles. Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen (median age 17), took one year to be convinced to formally resign, while in Syria (median age 21), the 15-month uprising continues to be brutally repressed by Bashar Assad’s forces.

Of course, overthrowing a dictator, while inspiring and liberating to those whose rights have been repressed, is only the first step in achieving democracy. In the coming year, the countries that have already taken steps toward solidifying regime change will face continued tests as internal tensions surface. Even in Tunisia, recent clashes signal that political divisions and economic uncertainty have not been resolved. With potentially divisive elections ahead in Egypt and Libya, a holdover from the Saleh regime leading Yemen, and Syria’s fate unknown, the coming year should offer political demographers further evidence of the soundness of the age structure and democracy thesis.

2. New Commitments to Family Planning

Reproductive health and demography go hand-in-hand, and two milestones for family planning advocates are fast approaching: the 20th anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the 2015 endpoint of the Millennium Development Goals.

These historic commitments by governments will be joined by a major initiative to generate new funding and political will this summer at an international family planning summit in London on July 11. The summit will be co-hosted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Melinda made an impassioned TEDxChange speech in support of the issue in April), and the UK’s Department for International Development, for whom family planning is a priority in efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality.


Details of the summit have yet to be finalized and publicly released, but financial commitments from donors and developing countries are anticipated toward meeting a new and ambitious goal of generating $4 billion to fund contraceptives for 120 million women in developing countries by 2020. Assuming these are new users, rather than those who would be expected by projecting recent growth in contraceptive use forward, this would represent more than half of the estimated 215 million women with an unmet need for family planning.

Why does new family planning funding matter for political demography? Rates of contraceptive use are lowest and fertility highest in countries with youthful age structures. Such population dynamics exacerbate the challenges governments face in providing education, health, and basic infrastructure services, as well as supporting an economic climate conducive to industry diversification and job creation. In turn, the likelihood of civil conflict and undemocratic governance is higher in such countries.

While policies that recognize the benefits of family planning may be solid, funding and implementation often fall woefully short. In the least developed countries, less than one-third of reproductive-age women are using any contraception, and the rate has grown by just 0.4 percentage points annually over the past decade. Meanwhile, funding from all sources is less than half the amount required to meet unmet need. If the July summit motivates a new groundswell of financial support, 2012 could incite major strides toward improvements in individual health and well-being as well as demographic momentum in the remaining high-fertility countries.

3. Demographic Diversity in Sub-Saharan Africa

The current era of global demographic diversity has been distinguished by both record-low fertility rates in parts of Europe and eastern Asia and persistently high fertility across most of western, central, and eastern Africa. More than one-quarter of women in sub-Saharan Africa would like to postpone or avoid pregnancy, but are not using contraception, demonstrating a large unmet need for family planning.

The U.S. government-funded Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) program is the largest single source for detailed data on health status and behavior in high-fertility developing countries, and in turn informs estimates and projections of demographic trends. Recently, DHS reports have been released showing that contraceptive use over the past five years is growing much faster than the regional average in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Rwanda. In turn, fertility rates have dropped, ranging from a relatively modest 0.3 children per woman in Malawi and an unprecedented 1.5 children per woman in Rwanda.

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These findings suggest that the pattern of demographic stagnation in sub-Saharan Africa may be shifting, perhaps due to governments’ and donors’ investments in family planning. However, newer survey results for Mozambique, Uganda, and Zimbabwe present a more mixed picture, with modest gains in contraceptive use in Uganda, offset by declines in the other two countries.

Additional recent survey results show that use of modern contraceptive methods has barely increased in Senegal (from 10 percent in 2005 to 12 percent in 2010-11). And while modern contraceptive use increased in the Republic of Congo from 13 percent in 2005 to 20 percent currently, fertility also rose slightly, from 4.8 to 5.1 children per woman.

Approximately 10 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are slated for DHS fieldwork this year, including one of the continent’s giants, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and several of the highest-fertility countries in the region. (Outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the demographic heavyweights in this year’s group of DHS reports are Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Pakistan.)

The upcoming surveys will provide greater clarity about whether the promising signs of family planning adoption and the potential for progress through the demographic transition in Ethiopia, Malawi, and Rwanda are initiating widespread change across the continent, or whether the need for commitments such as those generated by the London summit is even stronger.

4. New Population Projections

DHS reports are critical inputs for the world’s most comprehensive and readily accessible set of demographic data, the UN Population Division’s World Population Prospects. This database is fully updated and revised biannually, in large part due to the steady stream of newly available estimates from the DHS and related sources, such as national censuses. The next revision of World Population Prospects, based on estimates for mid-year 2012, is expected to be published in spring 2013.

The previous revision of World Population Prospects was notable for its methodological overhaul. In addition to extending the projections until 2100, the Population Division shifted to a probabilistic technique (as opposed to assuming convergence at a single fertility rate of 1.85 children per woman) that generates 100,000 possible fertility trajectories for each country and selects the median as the medium fertility variant, commonly cited as the most likely projection. Still, the basic parameters remain the same: With fertility rates the strongest driver of population projections, low, medium, and high fertility variants are constructed around the assumption that countries will converge towards replacement level fertility, around 2.1 children per woman.

In some cases, this results in projections that are vastly at odds with recent trends. For example, in Japan, fertility has fallen by 38 percent, from replacement level in the early 1970s to 1.3 children per woman in 2010, but the UN projects it to immediately reverse course and begin rising to 1.8 by mid-century. If the projection holds, Japan’s population will decline relatively modestly, from 127 million to 109 million. But if fertility stays constant at current levels, the population will fall below 100 million. For low-fertility countries like Japan, all UN scenarios assume constant or rebounding fertility rates, even though continued decline may be a plausible outcome in some cases.

When next year’s projections are released, a cluster of media articles will report the projected world population for 2050. In last year’s revision, the medium fertility variant resulted in a projection of 9.3 billion, an increase from the 9.1 billion projected two years earlier based on higher projected fertility in the future. Such reports often overlook the range of population totals possible depending on fertility paths: If the global fertility rate varies by 0.5 children per woman in either direction, the total population could be more than one billion higher or lower in 2050, with an even wider range possible by 2100.

Most of the projected growth in world population, and its potential range, will be driven by the high-fertility countries concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. Population projections for these countries vary tremendously based on fertility scenarios informed by the recent DHS results described above.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, fertility has fallen over the past 40 years, but by a gradual 15 percent. The UN projects it to drop more than twice as fast, by more than two children per woman (39 percent), in the next four decades. In any scenario, Nigeria is on track for rapid population growth, but the potential range based on fertility outcomes is wide. If fertility declines as projected in the medium variant, the country would grow from 158 million to 390 million. And although unlikely, the constant fertility projection of 504 million Nigerians in 2050 should be kept in mind given the slow pace of fertility decline to date.

Population projections are highly wonky, but their careful production and regular revision are essential for accurate planning of economic and social needs in countries around the world. While governments with dedicated census agencies, such as those in the U.S., Japan, or India, rely on internally-generated estimates, the UN projections serve as the primary indication of population trends in countries with spottier data coverage and have tremendous utility in gauging future needs for infrastructure, housing, health care across the life cycle, education, jobs, and other investments.


By no means is this an exhaustive list of factors that will affect political demography research and policy over the coming year. Other events to watch for include the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development in June, whose priority issues of jobs, energy, infrastructure, and resources will be shaped by demographic trends, and continued attention to prospects for the demographic dividend in Africa. Political demography is inherently cross-disciplinary, and the field’s researchers and practitioners will be engaged on multiple fronts in the year ahead.

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a consultant on political demography for the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program and senior technical advisor at Futures Group.

Sources: Al Jazeera, Bongaarts (2008), Cincotta (2008), Cincotta (2012), Cincotta and Leahy (2006), Grist, Guttmacher Institute, MEASURE DHS, The New York Times, NPR, Population Reference Bureau, UN Population Division, The Washington Post.

Image Credit: “The Face of a Tyrant,” courtesy of flickr user freestylee (Michael Thompson); video courtesy of TED; chart created by Schuyler Null, data from UN Population Division.

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