Population Matters

Afghanistan: the Future is in the Numbers

November 25th, 2009

Last week Foreign Policy published an article by Richard Cincotta, “Could Demography Save Afghanistan?” which looks at what the population growth rate in Afghanistan will mean to the stability of the country in the next two decades. In a failed state like Afghanistan the growth rate of the population can have a large impact on the stability of the country, in part, because it can create a large youth bulge.  At present, over half the adults in Afghanistan currently is between 15 to 29 years of age.  In poor countries, a large youth bulge can translate into a lot of young men competing for a small number of jobs, making it easier for extremist groups to recruit new members.

Recent numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the Afghan growth rate could be slowing down, but numbers from the U.N. Population Division show it might not be slowing fast enough. Currently, the population of Afghanistan is about 28 million, the Census Bureau projects that the population in 2030 will be 42 million, and the U.N. projects that it will be over 50 million. The difference between these projections is significant to the future stability of Afghanistan. As the article explains:

If the Census Bureau’s prognostications are right – if Afghanistan experiences a sharp decline in family size and slower subsequent growth – this change would represent a milestone in Afghanistan’s development. But if Afghan population growth remains at a high level, auguring a continued surfeit of young job seekers, their disaffection and armed violence, the breakdown of schooling and health services, and the perpetuation of high fertility, it bodes very poorly indeed.

So how do we ensure that Afghanistan follows the correct path? One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed is the status of women in Afghanistan. Currently, Afghanistan is one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Cincotta notes that, “fewer than half of all the school-age daughters of rural Afghan families are receiving basic education. Many are married during adolescence, and are then limited to performing household chores. If abused, most have no recourse to a fair judicial system.” The low status of women means that most women don’t have a say in their own fertility.

This appears to be slowly changing.  A recent survey showed that women in Afghanistan are now bearing 5.6 children in their lifetime, which is a decrease compared to the 7 to 8 children they were having pre-invasion. Along with this there has been an increase in the use of contraceptives in married women from 5% in 2003 to 16% in 2006.

If this trend holds out it would not only lower the projected population increase, it would likely lead to a steady decrease in maternal mortality. Currently 1 in 8 women in Afghanistan die from pregnancy related causes.  The article illustrates what that means. “To put this figure in perspective, in 2008, about four times as many women died from pregnancy and childbirth in Afghanistan than anyone did from battle-related causes within its borders.”

In charting a new course for Afghanistan, let’s hope that the Obama Administration is taking demography and women into account. As Richard Cincotta concludes in his article:

Whenever the United States and its allies decide that it’s time to leave Afghanistan on its own, they may do so before women’s lives significantly improve, and before their government sufficiently expands education, health care, family planning, and economic opportunity. If that should occur, don’t be surprised if, a few decades later, a foreign power (perhaps the United States, again) find it prudent to intervene – this time, in a much more populous, and perhaps even more impossibly problematic Afghanistan.

USAID/Nawa village, Afghanistan

USAID/Nawa village, Afghanistan

Posted by Jennie Wetter, Program Manager

Leave a Reply