Next week, according to United Nations projections, the world will pass 7 billion in population, and by the end of this century it’s likely to grow by half again to 10 billion.
What will determine their quality of life? From an economist’s view, what matters is the productivity of the 10 billion—will they be educated and have jobs that contribute to economic growth? From a sociologist’s view, what matters is whether the 10 billion are socialized into stable roles in society—can they build families and join communities where they have dignity and focus on building for the future? From a political scientist’s view, what matters is the quality of government in countries where most of the 10 billion will live—will those governments avoid corruption, enforce the rule of law, and protect participation and civil rights?
At present, the prospects are not bright. While most of the world’s capital, managerial experience, and engineering expertise is concentrated in the high-income and emerging economies of Europe, China, North America, Japan, and the Asian Tigers, none of those countries will be significant contributors to future population growth. Even China, which we think of as a population juggernaut, is now reaping the results of its one-child policy and is projected to suffer a decline in population of 400 million by 2100.
Of the 3 billion additional people who will join the world this century, virtually all of them will be growing up in countries that today are rated by the George Mason University Fragile States Index as having governments that have serious, high, or extreme fragility. These are governments that do not enforce the rule of law, have high rates of internal violence, and do a poor job providing education and jobs for their people.
In many of the largest and fastest-growing countries of the world today—Nigeria, Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda—less than one quarter of teenage children are enrolled in high school. For the less- and least-developed nations as a whole, where virtually all future population growth will occur, less than half of teens are even attending high school, to say nothing of the problems providing sound buildings, books, and teachers for those in school. Without a meaningful education that prepares them for worthwhile jobs, and without governments that provide a stable legal framework for investment and prevent corruption from soaking up any gains, youth will increase in numbers but also in anger and frustration. Unless the prospects in these countries improve, the youth movements in North Africa may be just a prelude to a century of further upheavals.
What of the prospects for humanitarian disaster? While population growth poses a challenge, it is more a problem of politics than biology. Amartya Sen has shown that famines throughout history are not simply products of population growth or lagging food supply but the result of weak or self-interested governments. Today both Kenya and Somalia are suffering from drought, but famine is extreme only on the Somali side of the border, because Somalia is a failed state whose government, such as it is, is unable to take actions to assure that food is available to those who cannot provide for themselves. Problems of water scarcity, rising food prices, and even global warming are not the inevitable result of biology; they result from inefficient or wasteful use—from creating incentives to turn food grains into ethanol, or pricing valuable water supplies as if they were nearly free. Good governance can help rising populations manage their resources; poor governance turns even modest shortages or natural disasters into major humanitarian crises.
The rise in global population from 6 billion at the start of this century to 7 billion, then 8, 9, and 10 billion by century’s end, will mark a great turning point in world history. For the 200 years from 1750 to 1950, the fastest population growth took place in the world’s most advanced economies. Their rising productivity and improving governance ushered in previously unseen prosperity, and fuels optimism for the future.
But in the next century, the fastest population growth will take place in the world’s least advanced economies and some of its worst-governed countries. A global effort to improve governance and education in those countries, allowing the world to benefit from the human potential of billions of additional people, could again usher in a new stage of global prosperity. But failure to meet this challenge may consign billions of people to live in countries with failing states, brimming with angry and frustrated youth, prone to high levels of violence, and recurrent humanitarian disasters on ever-larger scales. There is still time to build partnerships and make investments to respond to this challenge, but every week, another 3 million children are born in the poorest countries, and the clock ticks on.