The world just passed a quiet milestone, topping 8 billion people on Earth. Embedded in this demographic story is an important developmental one: We are healthier, wealthier, and better educated than at any time in human history.
And yet, macro numbers offer little solace to the 800 million people who still lack access to electricity, or the roughly same amount who go to sleep hungry. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated many of the existing inequalities in our world and added a range of new problems, from supply chain-induced food insecurity to trillions of dollars in economic losses worldwide.
A deep dive into the latest United Nations World Population Prospects report reveals that the fastest growing populations are concentrated in low-income and developing countries. These youthful, growing societies can be a demographic gift or a burden. Thus, a key question facing these countries, and the world, is this: What’s the best way to ensure that fast-growing, large populations become a dividend to be multiplied rather than problems that could metastasize?
Let’s start with the eight countries that the UN estimates will account for about half of the world’s population growth over the next three decades: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Tanzania. If the world hits 9.7 billion people by 2050 – as the UN projects – roughly 850 million new souls will reside in one of these countries.
None of these fast growing eight have a history of good governance or sound economic management, but all of them are brimming with talented and innovative people who could contribute immensely to their own countries and the world – if their talent is unleashed.
Every government faces the fundamental challenge of helping their people thrive and prosper. It’s a 21st century corollary to that Enlightenment idea that government should seek to “maximize the greatest happiness for the greatest number.” Happiness, of course, is hard to measure, but human development is not – nor is income per capita.
Of the eight countries expected to fuel future population growth, only one cracks the top 100 on the UN Human Development Index: Egypt, squeaking in at number 97. All, except for Egypt, fall into the two lowest categories of the index – medium or low development. They all sit at or near the bottom of income per capita classifications.
Are these countries prepared for the demographic deluge? Will they be overwhelmed, or will they flourish?
Large populations in failing and flailing economies are inherently destabilizing – both within their borders and beyond them. On the other hand, large populations in booming economies with strong human development can act as a powerful force multiplier that can lift many boats at home and abroad.
Beyond Egypt and the other seven countries, where does the Middle East and North Africa stand? The fastest growing, large populations in the region are Sudan, Yemen, and Iraq. The Population Reference Bureau, a non-profit research center, projects Sudan’s population to grow by 80 percent through 2050, tipping it over 84 million people. Iraq could approach a population of 75 million by the end of 2050, while Yemen could see its population swell to 55 million.
By contrast, other populous countries in the region – like Iran and Morocco – are growing slowly, with Iran’s fertility rate of 1.7 births per woman on par with notoriously slow-going Scandinavian countries. Sudan’s fertility rate, for comparison, clocks in at 4.5.
On income per capita scores and human development rankings, Gulf Cooperation Council countries tend to rise above the rest of the MENA region. Surely, oil and gas wealth has played a role in those rankings, but sound governance, particularly in the most advanced countries like the United Arab Emirates (ranked 26 in the world on the UN’s Human Development Index, ahead of Spain and France) is also an important factor.
Years of mismanagement, inefficiency, corruption and, in some cases, civil or regional wars have left several countries in the region perennially playing catch-up, the gap widening each year. What’s to be done?
Unfortunately, the region holds many examples of what is not to be done. From Beirut to Tripoli to Tehran, corrupt elites have siphoned off the wealth of their people, while squandering their present and future. All three countries – Lebanon, Libya, and Iran – possess strategic geography, talented populations and, in the case of Libya and Iran, immense natural resources.
While there is no one-size-fits-all model, it’s clear by now that countries that invest in education and health care, promote a healthy and vibrant private sector, create regulatory environments conducive to entrepreneurship, tamp down on corruption, and build the infrastructure of connectivity tend to be those that sit atop the rankings of development indexes.
There are no secrets in developing a country’s success. We know what must be done. The countries that have been doing it thus far – and continue to do it – will be winners in the 21st century. Most importantly, their people will be in positions to achieve the most important human development goal of all: reaching their full potential.