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Population Series 6: a Dark Scenario for the Future

Published 20th June 2010 - 0 comments - 7149 views -

True, the future may be bright. But then, it may not. That is what this post is about. I will explore a really dark scenario for the future of the developing countries based not on science fiction, but on proper science instead. Take it as a warning only, but pay attention to the questions raised. In any case it would be great if the future proves me wrong.

1. The Perfect Storm Gathering

In the previous posts of the population series we saw how the world population will grow on spikes, predominantly in the poorer developing countries. This will probably lead to greater urbanization and increasing pressure on the environment. Then we can add climate change and resource depletion to the picture. You may say that a perfect storm is gathering. Let’s see how.

Going back to demographics, we can now pay attention to the concept of demographic stress – that is, a large proportion of young, unemployed males in the population and rapid urbanization. We know that such countries, as a group, have had a higher likelihood of civil conflict than other countries. We also know that low per capita availability of cropland or fresh water exacerbates this stress. An assessment of demographic stress is presented on the picture below. We can see that the bulk of nations under demographic stress are in Sub-Saharan Africa, along with some countries in Central and Eastern Asia.

But demographic stress is not the single parameter in the calculation. Climate change, although somewhat controversial at the moment, will probably play its part in exacerbating challenges posed by demographic stress. Climate change matters most when we consider the future of subsistence agriculture and water availability, and the future seems bleak. It is exactly those countries suffering from demographic pressures that will also experience increasing climate variability and drought in the future. This can be seen on the map below. It charts the climate change vulnerability index as calculated by the US company Maplecroft. It clearly shows that the countries hardest hit by climate change phenomena (blue areas) coincide with countries with the most demographic stress. Developing countries in general are much more vulnerable, too.

Even outside of the climate change debate, water availability is a serious concern. The thing is that some of the freshwater resources cannot be replenished. This means that in the future some aquifers will simply run dry. Northern Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are the most vulnerable regions.

Desertification is also an issue. Today large regions in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia are extremely vulnerable to desertification, greatly reducing the productivity of agriculture and the sustainability of existing infrastructure.

All in all, there simply are too many factors that are negative for human development in developing countries. On the other hand, human civilization did not develop in perfect conditions neither. So we can say that human ingenuity will prevail over negative externalities. But this is unlikely.

2. The Real Problem: Bad Governance

The real problem is bad governance. I will not speculate here why it is so – there are many academic careers developing on this question. I will only hint here that corruption probably plays a big part. The reality, however, is clear – the least developed countries also experience really bad governance. It is so bad, that some of them are classified as either failing or failed states. Such states are inadequate in delivering public goods and non-state actors are developing their own violent agendas there. Not surprisingly, most of the failing and failed states are in the same critical geographical regions that were highlighted on the previous maps. You can see this on the map below, prepared by the Fund for Peace.

The problem with bad governance is that left on its own, it gets worse. In other words we only get more of the same, and the same may mean armed conflict, genocide, and further state failure. And state failure is spreading, too – the worst case scenario being Somalia at the moment. So the logic goes like this – weak or failing states will be facing much more challenges due to demographic stress, resource depletion and possibly climate change. The inability to act decisively on those issues will in turn weaken them further, leading to mass state failure in some regions. The reason for this is that state failure in neighboring countries leads to migration, declining external trade and foreign investment, thus weakening states that were relatively stable to that moment.

I can speculate a lot on what this future of mass state failure could bring. But this is not a fictional narrative, and there may be some counter-trends involved. It suffices to say that international security and the global economy as we know it today will be greatly undermined, as already witnessed by the ongoing problems with Somali pirates.

3. The Way Out

So is there any chance to prevent this scenario from happening? Of course, there is. Take for example this book by Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart. There are other “fix it” recipes, too. And there’s definitely a lot that developed countries may and must do to help. But frankly speaking, I am quite skeptical. The problem with bad governance is that –absent a strong conditionality program such as the EU accession negotiations – it simply consumes the provided resources and moves on. The attempt to modernize and improve public administrations through external support is often futile in the long term.

So what does it take? I really don’t know. I wish that all developing countries could somehow become stable democracies as described by Lipset. But today it is safe to say that this is quite unlikely. So any effort in the direction of finding working formulas for state stabilization should be supported, and urgently.


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