Population Matters

The Arab Population Challenge

July 28th, 2009

The Arab Human Development Report 2009, released last week by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), gives a grim assessment of the challenges facing the region. Independently authored by Arab scholars, the report concludes that human insecurity in the region:

….is heightened by swift climatic changes, which threaten the livelihoods, income and access to food and water of millions of Arabs in future. It is reflected in the economic vulnerability of one-fifth of the people in some Arab states, and more than half in others, whose lives are impoverished and cut short by hunger and want. Human insecurity is palpable and present in the alienation of the region’s rising cohort of unemployed youth and in the predicaments of its subordinated women, and dispossessed refugees.

The report identified population pressures as a mounting concern:

According to UN estimates, the Arab countries will be home to some 395 million people by 2015 (compared to about 317 million in 2007, and 150 billion in 1980). In a region where water and arable land are shrinking, population growth at these rates while falling, will still put intense pressures on the carrying capacity of Arab countries’ lands and further threaten environmental sustainability.

The report also indicates that population growth is exacerbating efforts to reduce unemployment. The region will have to create 50 million new jobs by 2020 to accommodate a youthful and rapidly growing workforce. With two out of five Arabs already living on less than $2 a day, the challenge is daunting.

Many factors are inhibiting economic and social development in the region, including violence against women and the continued prevalence of early childhood marriages. The report notes that:

Arab countries have yet to adopt laws prohibiting child marriage before the age of majority, namely, eighteen years of age. Yet studies indicate that early marriage and teenage pregnancies threaten the health of mothers and children, and increase female vulnerability to violence. Early marriages often lead to divorce, family breakdown and poor child-rearing. They commonly encourage early childbearing and high fertility, which carry marked health risks for very young mothers and their infants. Although early marriage is on the decline in the Arab countries, the numbers of teenage girls who are married remains significant in some countries.

The situation is not entirely dire. Fertility rates in many parts of the region continue to fall, thereby easing the development challenge. But some of the poorest countries in the region, like Yemen, are on a dangerous demographic trajectory. Yemen’s population, currently 22.2 million, is projected to reach 58.8 million by mid-century. And Yemen has an acute water shortage that threatens to cripple economic and agricultural development.

As the Arab Human Development Report 2009 makes clear, rapid population growth is far from the only problem confronting the region. Corruption, non-representative governments, human rights abuses, and climate change all pose significant problems for the Arab world. But rapid population growth will make it more–not less–difficult to address those other problems.

Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President

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