As they debate how to tackle the threat of insurgency and unrest in Africa, Western leaders could do worse than to consider one of the most important, yet curiously underplayed, aspects of that troubled region -- the dangers of rapid, unchecked population growth.
It is no coincidence that in recent decades Mali's population has been growing at an unsustainable annual rate of around 3 percent. In other words, the average Malian woman has six children, while the country's population has tripled over the past 50 years and, according to the latest U.N. estimates, is set to triple again over the next half-century.
Such a drastic rate of population growth has profound implications. In particular it means that, in an undeveloped and largely barren land, too many people are competing for too few local resources and opportunities. Young men have limited hopes of finding employment or even sustenance and are therefore deeply susceptible to the temptation of armed criminality and insurgency and to the lure of radical preachers who seem to offer them both a sense of purpose and scapegoats whom they can blame for their woes.
It is of course an oversimplification to blame terrorism and insurgency on any single factor, but look around: The practitioners of these violent ways are also thriving in several other countries that are experiencing comparably high rates of population growth.
Pakistan, for example, is on course to become the world's third most populous country by mid-century. It is a country in which poverty-stricken parents have been willing to surrender their children's education to radical, Saudi-financed madrasas where they are inculcated with a radical anti-Western message. Likewise Yemen, a major front line in Washington's ongoing war with al Qaeda, continues to experience one of the highest birth rates in the world, marginally higher than Mali's.
Or take Saudi Arabia, which, as the advocates of the Iraq war never tired of reminding their audience, was home to 15 of the 9/11 hijackers. Yet the War Party never called attention to an aspect of the kingdom that was at least as glaring as its lack of democracy -- a birth rate of 2.3 percent in a country where around six out of every 10 people are under the age of 40.
The link between violence and domestic unrest on the one hand, and population growth on the other, becomes clear from a glance at the U.N.'s World Population Prospects report, published in 2006. Of the 29 countries that were reckoned to be experiencing a population growth rate of more than 2.5 percent, almost all were experiencing high levels of violence, the clear exceptions being Malawi, Togo, Madagascar, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan. You might call this the "2.5 percent rule," since there is a far less noticeable link in those countries experiencing a rate of growth that falls below this figure.