Population Matters

Fragile States/Fragile Families

June 29th, 2014

What do Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan all have in common? Plenty.

In Washington DC, a city consumed by headline stories, Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace this past week teamed up to give an in-depth look at the stories behind all the conflicts and civil wars. The 2014 Fragile States Index (FSI), previously called the Failed States Index, gives an insider’s look at the factors contributing to political and social breakdown.

Behind every country that erupts into civil war, falls victim to famine or flubs in respond to a natural disaster is a government that has failed to protect its citizens. Such failures rarely arise overnight. They give plenty of warning signs, and the FSI identifies and analyzes them in hopes of strengthening these “fragile” states, preventing humanitarian disasters and building a country’s resilience in the face of conflict, climate change and other threats.

Governments can “fail” in numerous respects. They can fuel ethnic division, perpetuate corruption and economic inequality, abuse human rights, neglect basic services or squander human capital. And when they do, their countries become “fragile,” meaning they become far more susceptible to conflict, civil war, drought and other humanitarian disasters.

It’s important to note that the governments of these fragile states are often struggling against impossible odds to meet the needs of their citizens. While some governments are victims of their own ineptitude or corruption, others face major external threats like climate change or regional conflict.

In this year’s FSI rankings, South Sudan replaced Somalia in the top spot, after the fledgling government failed to calm the ethnic tensions that are undermining progress and national unity. The Central African Republic, which now teeters on the brink of genocidal conflict, was bumped up to third place in the FSI rankings. Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, Yemen, Haiti and Pakistan rounded out the top ten.

There are many factors that distinguish these “fragile” states from one another, but almost without exception they are all struggling to cope with rapid population growth. Rapid population growth can overwhelm a government’s ability to tackle chronic hunger, severe poverty, environmental degradation, political unrest and the depletion of water, forests and other resources.

Sixteen of the countries that top this year’s Fragile States Index have populations that are projected to double in size over the next 35 years. Chad, which ranked 6th, is on course to trip its population by 2050, while Niger, which tied for 19th on the FSI, could nearly quadruple its population. And these projections assume that fertility rates in these countries will continue to decline.

What makes population growth so challenging for fragile countries is that many of them are already on the front lines of poverty, hunger and malnutrition. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) publishes a Global Hunger Index. Of the top 20 countries on that list, 15 will double their population in the next 35 years. Four of the remaining five, are projected to increase their population by 60 percent or more. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) publishes a Multidimensional Poverty Index. Eighteen of the top 20 poorest countries will likely double their population in the next 35 years. The other two will increase their populations by 50 percent or more.

Some of the world’s most fragile states — including Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Jordan — consume 80 percent of more their renewable water resources every year, and yet their populations are projected to increase by 80 percent of more by 2050. No one knows how these countries will meet the anticipated demand for water resources.

The best way to make “fragile” countries stronger and more resilient is to strengthen the family unit. When girls are better educated, women economically empowered and when girls and women are able to space or limit their pregnancies without male or religious coercion, the family is strengthened. Maternal and infant mortality decline. Nutrition and food security improve. Children are better educated and parents are able to devote more resources to improving the family’s income, whether it is buying a new sewing machine or more fertilizer for the crops. Smaller, better educated families are also better able to meet the challenges posed by conflict or natural disaster.

The FSI is a crucial start, but it’s time for a much larger debate about fragile countries and what can be done to strengthen them. Fragile states rarely receive the assistance they need until they become humanitarian disasters. If made in time, small investments — including investments in family planning and gender equality — can pay big dividends.

Posted by Robert Walker, President

This was originally posted on the Huffington Post on June 28, 2014

As the World Bank Turns

June 26th, 2014

Something exciting, almost revolutionary, is happening at one of the most conservative of the world’s international institutions. The World Bank, which for decades has been criticized has overly focused on the construction of dams and other infrastructures as the cure for poverty, is turning its focus to the real engine of economic progress in the developing world: girls and women.

The shift from physical capital to human capital has been in the works for several years, but it has accelerated under the leadership of Jim Yong Kim, who became the Bank’s president on July 1, 2012. Kim, an anthropologist by training, understands that gender inequality is one of the biggest obstacles, if not the biggest, to improving economic conditions in the world’s poorest countries.

Two years ago, prior to Kim’s appointment, the World Bank’s annual “World Development Report” focused on the promotion of gender equality, describing it as “smart economics,” but doubts remained as to whether the Bank was really changing its bricks and mortar orientation. The jury is still out, but the Bank’s new concentration on girls and women is gaining critical momentum. And the World Bank Group’s Gender and Development team, led by Jeni Klugman, appears to the leading the charge.

Last month, the team released a new report titled, “Voice and Agency: Empowering women and girls for shared prosperity.” The report argues, and persuasively so, that investing in gender equality will “yield broad development dividends.” Gender equality requires, at a minimum, that women have “voice.” By voice, the Bank means “having the capacity to speak up and be heard and being present to shape and share in discussions, discourse, and decisions.”

But voice alone is not enough. Women also require “agency,” which the Bank describes as, “the capacity to make decisions about one’s own life and act on them to achieve a desired outcome, free of violence, retribution, or fear.”

While full gender equality requires “agency” at all levels, it’s particularly true with respect to childbearing. But girls and women in many of the world’s least developed countries have very little “agency” with respect to spacing and limiting their pregnancies. In many male-dominated societies, men, not women, effectively make the childbearing decisions, particularly in rural areas where child marriage practices are still prevalent.

While the United Nations recognizes reproductive freedom as a basic human right, child brides have a hard time exercising that right. In Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries where old tribal traditions still prevail, it is not uncommon for a girl to be married off before reaching puberty. And not infrequently, the husband can be 20 or 30 years older than the girl bride. In such cases, girls have little or no “agency” in determining when they will have a child.

If women in developing countries are to exercise “agency,” social norms with respect to child marriage, the education of girls, female ownership of property, and desired family size must change. The Bank takes that challenge seriously. Kim insists that “norms can and do change,” and the Bank’s report outlines a number of strategies for changing social norms, putting particular emphasis on the role that “information and communication technologies can play in amplifying women’s voices.”

That is the correct approach. In many parts of the world today, “social content” soap operas are providing positive role models for girls and women and, just as importantly, helping to change the attitudes and behaviors of boys and men towards girls and women. By showcasing what girls and women are capable of in the workforce, and addressing socially harmful practices, like child marriage and female genital cutting, radio soap operas and other entertainment media can change public perceptions as to what is normal and beneficial, and what is not.

Social norms urgently need to change with respect to gender violence. So long as boys and men believe that it is acceptable to inflict sexual violence on girls and young women, very little — if any — progress will be made with respect to reproductive choice and the economic empowerment of women.

If social norms can be changed, and if the World Bank takes a leading role in helping to make that possible, the goal of eliminating severe poverty and hunger in the world may yet be realized. When girls receive the same education as boys, the productivity of the country’s workforce takes a giant leap forward. When girls and women are able to decide — free from male dictates or coercion — the spacing and number of their children, they generally choose to have smaller families. With family planning, maternal and infant mortality decline, child nutrition improves, educational attainment levels rise, and the stage is set for rapid economic advancement. The “demographic dividend,” as economists and demographers describe it, is a time-tested development strategy that contributed to the economic breakthroughs achieved by the emerging economies of Asia and Latin America.

There will always be a need and a role for economic infrastructure improvements, but unless the World Bank and the broader international donor community realize the “human capital” potential of girls and women, the economic potential of many developing countries will remain untapped.

The realization of “voice and agency” for girls and women is not just a moral imperative, it’s an economic one, and the World Bank, it appears, is taking that imperative seriously.

Posted by Robert Walker, President

Originally posted on the Huffington Post on June 25, 2014