Make the world safer one condom at a time

Make the world safer one condom at a time
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President Trump is still dealing with political fallout from a recent U.S. military operation in the world’s youngest country, Niger, where women give birth to an average of seven children and half the population is under age 15.

The U.S. also has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan, with a population that has grown from 21 million in 2001 to 35.5 million today


A U.S. drone strike in late October killed five al-Qaida fighters in Yemen, which sees over 3,000 births a day.


Research on political demography says a lot about the poor prospects for peace and stability over the next several decades in youthful countries like these.

All post-9/11 U.S. administrations have had myopic national security policies of varying degrees — all have failed to account for long-term trends that undermine peace and stability.

Their oversight is logical. 

Long-term trends are the least sexy, their causality is hard to prove, and it takes longer than an election cycle to see results from any policies that try to change those trends. But it’s still wise to seriously consider them, the same way it’s unwise to gaze peacefully at a snow-covered volcano and ignore the pressures building over time that will cause the top to blow off. 

Population pressures are blowing the top off of multiple countries at the center of U.S. concerns. Nigeria, simultaneously an engine of African economic growth and a haven for Boko Haram, is set to eclipse U.S. population by 2050, reaching over 400 million by then from just over 180 million today, even with the third highest infant mortality rate in the world. Somalia’s population is rapidly growing at over 3 percent a year, meaning that it will continue to be a challenge to provide jobs and meaningful opportunities for young people.

Population, poverty and political violence 

Demographics should be a fundamental consideration in security assessments because countries with extremely young populations tend to be the least peaceful, least prosperous and least democratic countries in the world. 

There’s more than just correlation at work here. Although more research would strengthen our findings, political demographers have shown that when crowded cohorts compete for scarce jobs they have high motive and low opportunity cost of joining rebel groups.

At least one political demographer was unsurprised at the Arab Spring, and that Tunisia was the only country in that movement to transition to democracy. Why? Demographics. 

Richard Cincotta tracked the proportion of 15- to 29-year-olds in the working-age population. He found that if a country transitioned to democracy before its youth population declined as a percentage of all working-age adults, these countries ended up with less liberal regimes — this happened in Ecuador, Fiji, Malaysia, Pakistan and Venezuela.

In contrast, when youth dropped to somewhere between 36 and 42 percent of all working-age adults, “full democracies evolved without the political backsliding or military coups that had been so common in Asian and Latin American politics.”

If democracies are relatively more peaceful than other regimes, and high proportions of youth make it tough for democracy to take hold, then countries with youthful populations are unlikely to stabilize in the near future, both internally and externally. Youthful countries also make poor alliance partners, as my past research has found.

Despite these findings U.S .strategy consistently fails to consider population as a driving force of peace and prosperity. It almost makes me miss Richard Nixon. 

The aid argument

Nixon, at least, recognized the importance of global population growth, calling it “a world problem which no country can ignore.”

He made population and family planning high priority for research and funding for aid programs. Nixon and Henry Kissinger issued a directive for the national security community to study the political and economic impacts of population growth.

In contrast, under the Trump administration there’s a contradiction between U.S. national security policy and U.S. foreign aid: the Trump administration continues to spend billions on military involvement in the same countries he cut family planning and health funding to as part of his expanding the Mexico City policy.

Reticence about foreign aid is understandable. Some scholars make persuasive arguments that investment yields far greater returns. And sometimes the results of aid are hard to see. For example, the U.S. has spent millions — over $700 million since 2002 — on girls’ education in Afghanistan, which still ranks as one of the world’s 10 worst countries on this metric.

Some analysts recognize the role of child marriage in preventing gains in girls’ education, which can be dealt with through changing laws to prevent it, but we also need to think about the role of fertility and family planning.

Did you just cringe at the thought of the U.S. military handing out condoms? Don’t.

Globally, girls under age 15 have 1.1 million births every year in developing countries. The first generation of girls born under U.S. occupation in Afghanistan are now beginning to become mothers. And the US is getting set to add troops in Afghanistan in 2018, bringing the total to 16,000. Family planning has to be a foundation of development and security if we want progress for the world’s poorest and greater chances for global peace.

Finding common ground

What’s good for the people of the world’s poorest countries — especially the women — is good for U.S. national security. Family planning should be an issue that unites conservatives and liberals.

Instead, some liberals want national security practitioners to stay as far away as possible, lest a whiff of eugenics scent the air. Some conservatives wrongly equate family planning with abortion.

There are grounds for both of those objections, but if both sides want a more peaceful and prosperous world, they both need to move on and realize that a sound, health-based family planning initiative can deliver that world to the benefit of Americans and the people of the poorest countries.

Jennifer Dabbs Sciubba, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of International Studies at Rhodes College and a Global Fellow with the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, DC. You can find her on Twitter @profsciubba.