That having been said, thoughtful Americans of all political persuasions – from the most passionate “nationalist” to the most ardent “internationalist” – should agree on two topics: First, the world’s population is slated to grow from about 7.5 billion human beings in mid-2016 to nearly 10 billion – about a one third increase – by mid-2050. Second, America’s leaders need to take account of that reality, and its country-specific manifestations, described below. In my view, this suggests support for American foreign assistance programs that provide voluntary family planning assistance in the world’s poorer nations.
Some Americans may be driven to focus on investing in voluntary family planning by concerns over global warming, the rights of women, food availability, educational and economic opportunity for more children, and humanitarian considerations. Other U.S. citizens and policymakers may find these topics less compelling, and be focused on our nation’s security concerns and protecting America’s interests in a dangerous world. But, this latter group, too, should be strong advocates of voluntary family planning abroad.
Accelerated population growth overseas puts pressure on U.S. security interests in the aggregate by driving unrestrained international migration, raising the specter of global pandemics, and increasing the pool of alienated individuals who may be susceptible to extremist appeals. But, a careful reading of current population trends also suggests that rapid population growth is taking place in precisely those countries most riven by internal conflict, which risk becoming flashpoints for international conflict in the coming decades. Based on data from the Population Reference Bureau’s 2016 World Population Data Sheet (many thanks to this organization for the data provided in this blog), developed countries like the United States can expect to have a “total fertility rate” – the number of children born to the average woman over her lifetime – of about 1.8. Let’s take a look at the total fertility rate for a sampling of countries in the throes of violent conflict: South Sudan: 6.7; Somalia: 6.4; Yemen: 4.2; Afghanistan: 5.3; Nigeria: 5.5. Yes, that’s correct. Children are being born in this group of countries at rates double or triple the rates in most developed countries.
Frankly, I have nothing against more South Sudanese, Somalis, Yemenis, Afghans, or Nigerians being born, per se. Nor do I pretend to know what the optimal number of individuals that inhabit any nation-state on the face of the earth should be. Rather, what I am suggesting is that, in a substantial number of places, conflict, instability, and accelerated population growth are interwoven in complex ways. And I am suggesting that those Americans interested in national security should be studying these dynamics closely.
Lest I appear to be all doom and gloom, the Population Reference Bureau’s data point out a number of positive trends in the world. Over the past 25 years, despite substantial population growth, the number of the world’s citizens with, for example, access to piped water has actually increased from 76% to 91%. Perhaps most important on the positive size of the ledger, moms and dads in the majority of countries in the developing world – with cost-effective support for voluntary family planning by the U.S. Government and others – have themselves decided to limit the size of their families, driving down the total fertility rate in the majority of developing countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The world of 2050 will be dramatically different, demographically speaking, from the world of today. It will be significantly more densely populated, and the highest rates of population growth will occur in the earth’s least developed locales. Given the humanitarian, natural resources, and security issues at stake, U.S. citizens and policymakers of all stripes should take two steps during this contentious period in Washington. First, take a look at the kind of striking data being produced by the Population Reference Bureau and other research organizations. Second, forge a consensus -- regardless of your position on the nationalist/internationalist spectrum, and regardless of how you define “national security” – that investments in voluntary family planning abroad are wise, workable, and critical.
James Kunder is an affiliated expert with The Lugar Center. From 2006 to 2009, he served as Acting Deputy Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID.) Previously at USAID, he served as Assistant Administrator for Asia and the Near East, Director for Relief and Reconstruction in Afghanistan, Deputy Assistant Administrator for External Affairs, and Director of the Agency's Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance. In the private sector, Kunder was Vice President for Program Development at Save the Children Federation.
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