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The African Population Disaster

28 October 2011

The African Population Disaster

By Gwynne Dyer

According to the United Nations, the world’s population will pass the seven billion mark at the end of this month, and there will be much tutting and shaking of heads over its prediction that we will be ten million by the end of the century. But almost nobody will have the temerity to point out that this is almost entirely an African problem.

The United Nations Population Fund’s own numbers tell the story. Africa currently has one-seventh of the world’s people: just over one billion. But during the rest of the century, the UN agency predicts, this single continent will add an extra 2.6 billion people, more than tripling in population, while all the rest of the world adds just half a billion.

If it weren’t for the African population boom, the world’s population would never exceed 7.5 billion. That is still probably twice as many people as the planet’s resources could support comfortably for more than a couple of generations – but birth rates are falling to below replacement level in most places. If that were happening in Africa too, the global population could be headed back down well before 2100.

It isn’t happening in Africa, or at least not nearly fast enough. Nor is the UN naively projecting current birth rates into the indefinite future. It assumes that the current average fertility rate for the African continent of 4.6 children per woman will fall to only three children per woman by 2045, though some countries – Niger, Mali and Uganda, for example – will continue to have higher birth rates.

The problem is that replacement level is 2.2 children per woman. Africa may well reach that level by late in the century, but the population growth will continue for a further 30-40 years, until the last generation from the baby-boom days has grown up and had its own 2.2 children per family. So a total African population of 3.6 billion by the end of the century – a third of the human race – is probably as good as it is going to get.

If African birth-rates do not decline steeply, it could be a great deal worse. If the current rate of African population growth persisted, we would have a global total of fifteen billion people by the end of the century, with about half of them crammed into that single continent. But let’s go with the optimistic assumption that there will be “only” ten billion of us.

What will the African population boom mean for the rest of the world, and for Africa itself? It may be a surprisingly self-contained disaster.

An Africa that more than triples its population during the rest of this century will certainly still be the world’s poorest continent at the end of it. Even the current improvement in economic growth rates in many African countries is largely cancelled out by population growth: few countries are seeing significant rises in per capita income.

If Africans stay poor, then their impact on the rest of the world will be slight. They will not become major consumers of resources imported from elsewhere, because they cannot afford them. Even their impact on the global environment, while not negligible, will be quite limited. It is high-income consumers of energy, manufactured goods and processed foods who really count when it comes to global issues like climate change.

Three hundred million Americans have more effect on the global environment than would three billion Africans living more or less in their present style. Subsistence farmers mostly affect the local environment, even when there are a lot of them. If they degrade their land, pollute their rivers and destroy their forests, the damage they do is mostly to themselves. Urban slum dwellers do even less damage to the global environment.

If no miracle intervenes, the African continent is going to have a very hard time in this century. It is already the only continent to experience recurrent famines, and they will probably get much worse. Civil wars and massacres are already more frequent in Africa than anywhere else, and that too will get worse, because people under great pressure rarely behave well.

What, if anything, can be done about this? Even a big push to make contraception available to the hundred million African women who do not now have easy access to it would not substantially change the outcome at this point. Only a brutally enforced one-child policy like China’s could do that, and it is simply impossible to believe that this could be done in any African state.

Africans have done nothing wrong, nor indeed is their birth-rate higher than those on other continents at various past times. But there is only a limited time available to get the birth-rate down once modern medicine and sanitation have brought the death-rate down.

Grow fast enough economically, and your people will have smaller families as they get more prosperous. Stay poor for too long, and population growth will overwhelm you. For various reasons, none of them their own fault, Africans have stayed poor for too long. Individual countries can still save themselves, and some will, but the continent as a whole probably cannot.

Few Africans will say that because it’s too painful to contemplate, and few outsiders will say it because it is politically incorrect. But a lot of people know it.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“It isn’t…rates”; and “If African…us”)

Palestine: The Vatican Option

12 September 2011

Palestine: The Vatican Option

By Gwynne Dyer

“We will go to the United Nations (to request the recognition of Palestine as a state) and then we will return to talks,” said Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas early this month. But he is actually going to the UN because there are no peace talks, and there is little likelihood of them even if he doesn’t go. He has to give Palestinians some sign of progress, even if it is a purely symbolic UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

The Israelis have already lined up the United States to veto it. The US Congress has loyally threatened to cut all financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if the statehood project goes ahead. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has even warned that Israel might withdraw from the Oslo accords, the foundation of Middle Eastern peace talks for the past two decades.

The Israeli government is also warning that if Palestine is recognised as a state, then there will be a wave of violence against Jewish settlers in the occupied territories. It’s unclear why the Palestinians would be likelier to resort to violence if they were DENIED statehood than if they were granted it, but Netanyahu insists that terrible things will happen if the UN recognises a Palestinian state. Don’t worry. It won’t.

Mahmoud Abbas will address the General Assembly on the 23rd of this month, and then there will be a vote that he is certain to win. 120 UN members recognise Palestinian statehood already, and he can easily find the eight extra votes he needs. His problem is that only the Security Council can admit a state to full membership in the United Nations – and one of its five permanent, veto-wielding members is the United States.

The last time the United States openly defied Israel was in 1991, when President George H.W Bush forced Yitzak Shamir’s government to attend the Madrid conference that led to the Oslo accords and the “peace process”. But the senior Bush has always believed that he lost the 1992 election as a result, and Barack Obama has no intention of following his example.

The United States has already promised Netanyahu that it will prevent Palestinian statehood, so this whole proposition seems an exercise in futility. Palestine will not get a UN seat, the United States will become even more disliked in the Arab world because it vetoed Palestine’s request, and angry and frustrated Palestinians may turn to violence. Abbas is no fool, so he must have a better plan than that. What is it?

He knows that the “peace process” has been dead for years, and that there is nothing to lose by ignoring it. It is only kept on life support to save the United States and some European countries from having to admit that they will never try to force Israel to make territorial concessions.

Abbas also knows that there will be no domestic pressure on Netanyahu to change course. The average Israeli has stopped worrying much about security and “peace” since the Wall around the West Bank stopped most terrorist attacks. Besides, Netanyahu is politically in thrall to the Jewish settlers: his coalition government would collapse if he compromised on territorial issues.

Finally, Abbas knows that Palestinian popular support for the “two-state solution,” the essential goal of the past twenty years of peace talks, is fading rapidly. Yet he and the Palestine Liberation Organisation are indissolubly linked to that solution, so he must restore its credibility. There will be no UN seat for Palestine this year, but there’s a half-way house that could bring enough benefits to win him some time.

It’s known as the “Vatican option.” The Vatican City is an independent and universally recognised state, but it only has 800 citizens so it has never sought a seat in the General Assembly. However, it does participate in most UN special organisations as a “non-member observer state.”

Palestine could achieve that status this month. The General Assembly can upgrade its current status as a non-member “observer entity” to a non-member “observer state” with no Security Council involvement and no risk of veto. It probably will.

Becoming an “observer state” would confer real advantages on Palestine. It could then join international organisations like Unesco, the World Health Organisation, and Unicef. Most importantly, it could also bring complaints before the International Criminal Court (ICC), including allegations that Israel has committed war crimes.

Since Israel (like the United States) refuses to accept the authority of the ICC, that would have limited practical implications for Israelis, but international arrest warrants might be issued. That would greatly inconvenience Israeli diplomacy: the ICC is the toughest and most impartial international legal authority in the world, and its indictments have a real impact on global public opinion.

What about the US veto and its negative effects on America’s reputation in most parts of the world? Washington would certainly prefer Abbas not to launch this initiative, but it does have the option of handing the proposal for full Palestinian membership in the UN over to a committee of experts for examination. Properly conducted, that examination might last for years.

 Much hot air will be expended over this initiative, but it will not cause a crisis.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 13. (“The last…example”; and “Since…opinion”)

Libya: Is Force an Instrument of Love?

31 August 2011

Libya: Is Force an Instrument of Love?

By Gwynne Dyer

Somebody (perhaps a Jesuit) once said: “Force is an instrument of love in a world of complexity and chance.” I’d be grateful if someone could tell me where that comes from, but it has stayed with me for a long time because it embodies a kind of truth. Sometimes you have to use force to protect innocent people from harm. Which brings us to Libya.

The war there is effectively over, and the Good Guys won. The dictator’s delusional son, Saif al-Islam, still promises that “victory is near,” but he will soon be dead, in prison, or (if he is lucky) in exile. The only problem is that the Good Guys who mattered most were actually foreigners.

The National Transitional Council, the shambolic proto-government that claims to run the rebel-held areas (now more than nine-tenths of the country) is well aware of the problem. When the United Nations began talking about sending peacekeeping troops to Libya to help stabilise the country, their reply was a resounding “no”.

That’s understandable. The NTC has enough difficulty getting other Arabs and Africans to accept that their revolution is a legitimate, home-grown affair without having

armed foreigners traipsing around the country. It’s painful even to admit that NATO functioned as the rebels’ air force, and that they could not have won without it. But it’s true.

It was the decision by France and Britain to commit their air forces to the defence of the rebels in eastern Libya that saved them from being overrun by Gaddafy’s forces in the early days of the revolt. Other Western countries sent combat aircraft to join them (although the United States drew back after the first few days), and Gaddafy’s army was stopped just short of Benghazi.

Equally important was UN resolution 1973 in March, which authorising willing UN member countries to use “all necessary means” (i.e. force) to protect the Libyan population from its own government. It specifically mentioned Benghazi, the capital of the rebel-held territory, as an area to be protected. And even Russia and China did not veto the resolution, although they had deep misgivings about where it might lead.

They were right. It led to a NATO-led aerial campaign (supported by a few planes from a couple of small Arab countries) that went far beyond protecting the Libyan population from attacks by Gaddafy’s forces. His troops were struck from the air wherever they were, on the flimsy argument that they might be planning to attack civilians one of these days.

Similarly, any building with pro-Gaddafy Libyan troops in or around it was designated a “command and control centre”, and therefore a legitimate target. The targeting was precise, hurting few civilians, but the bombing was intense. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the Royal Canadian Air Force, with only six F-18s involved, dropped 240 bombs on Libya in the first two months of the operation, all of them 227-kg. (500-lb.) laser-guided weapons.

It was these relentless air attacks that eroded Gaddafy’s forces so much that the rebel fighters in the west were finally able to seize Tripoli last week. The rebels could not have won without NATO. So were NATO’s actions legitimate, especially since they stretched the UN resolution’s terms almost to the breaking point? Even more importantly, were they morally correct?

Let’s leave the legality to the lawyers, who will gladly argue either side of that question for a fee. The real question is moral. Was NATO an instrument of love in this instance? Were its bombs?

Cheap cynicism says no, of course. It was “all about oil”, or the West seeking military bases in Libya, or French President Nicolas Sarkozy looking for a cheap foreign policy success before next year’s election. But cheap cynicism is sometimes wrong.

You don’t get oil more cheaply by invading a country: look at Iraq, which has sold all its oil at the world market price for the past eight years despite US military occupation. Why on Earth would the West want military bases in Libya? It already has them nearby, in Italy. And Sarkozy took a very big risk in sending French planes to back the rebels, although he must have known that any political boost he got would be over by next year.

If the foreigners’ motives really were humanitarian – they wanted to stop Gaddafy’s atrocious regime from killing his own subjects, and thought that Libyans would be better off without him – then they actually were using force as an instrument of love. Not “love” as in the love songs, but love meaning a genuine concern for the welfare of others

Most resorts to force do not meet this criterion (although those using the force generally claim that they do). The United States did not invade Iraq out of concern for the welfare of Iraqis, for example. But once in a while there is a shining exception, and this is one of those times.

The British, French, Canadians, Swedes, Qataris and so on would not have done it if it involved large casualties in their own forces. (In fact, they had no casualties.) Most Western soldiers didn’t think the operation would succeed in removing Gaddafy, and the outcome has been greeted with surprise and relief in most of the capitals that sent aircraft. But they did it, and that counts for a lot.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“Similarly…weapons”; and “Cheap…year”)

End-Game in Ivory Coast

29 March 2011

End-Game in Ivory Coast

By Gwynne Dyer

“The general offensive has begun,”said Seydou Ouattara, the military spokesman of the man who claims to be Ivory Coast’s legitimate president, Alassane Ouattara, on Monday. “We’ve realised that this is the only way to remove [the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo].” On the same day Ouattara’s troops seized two cities in the west of the country, Daloa and Giglio.

While ragtag little armies surge back and forth along the North African coast like a high-speed replay in miniature of the Western Desert campaign in the Second World War, a much bigger war is getting underway 1500 km (1000 mi) to the south. And although there are 9,000 United Nations troops on the ground in Ivory Coast, quite unlike the air-strikes-only intervention in Libya, the UN troops in Ivory Coast will not intervene to stop the war there.

The UN soldiers, all from African countries, were sent there to police a truce between the Muslim north of the country, which has been in the hands of the rebel New Forces since 2002, and the government of President Laurent Gbagbo, which controlled the largely Christian south. They were also there to supervise the election last November that was supposed to end the division of the country.

Unfortunately, the election didn’t work. Ouattara claimed victory and 3,000 international election observers backed him up, but an ally of Gbagbo’s on the Constitutional Court declared half a million of Ouattara’s votes invalid and said Gbagbo had won. Back to Square One.

Ouattara declared himself president, appointed the commander of the New Forces, Guillaume Soro, as his prime minister, and holed up in a hotel in Abidjan, the commercial capital, with three UN tanks parked out front to deter an attack by Gbagbo’s forces. Gbagbo insisted that he was still president, and threatened to use the army against Ouattara.

The UN troops will not intervene decisively because they were not sent to Ivory Coast to take sides in a large civil war, which is how this could end up. It isn’t just a quarrel between two stubborn men. It is about a probably irreversible transfer of power from the Christian south to the Muslim north in West Africa’s richest country, and there are those in the south who will fight to prevent that.

Christians used to be the majority in Ivory Coast, and they would probably still be if not for the estimated four million illegal immigrants who have poured into the country in the past two decades. Almost all of them came from the countries to the north, Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, which are entirely Muslim. Around a million of them are in Abidjan, but most stayed in northern Ivory Coast – Ouattara’s territory.

Gbagbo’s real complaint about the recent election is not that the vote was rigged but that the VOTER REGISTRATION was rigged: that hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants were registered as voters by sympathetic Muslim officials across the north. It may not be true, but it certainly could be. And Muslims certainly did vote overwhelmingly for Ouattara.

There was no hostility in the relationship between Muslims and Christians in Ivory Coast fifty years ago: this is entirely a product of politics. Just as every evolutionary niche is always filled, so is every political niche, including the one inhabited by politicians whose method is to build support in one ethnic or religious community by stirring up fear or jealousy of another.

Ouattara and Gbagbo both belong to that political species, although they would deny it with their last breath. They have succeeded so well that Ivory Coast now stands on the brink of a Muslim-Christian civil war (although the news agency reports hardly ever mention this key feature of today’s Ivorian politics). The normal result would be a hardening of the current partition of the country, but first there will be one last roll of the dice.

Gbagbo is in deep trouble. The West African central bank has denied him access to Ivory Coast’s accounts, the country’s main cash crop, cocoa, is being boycotted by the international community, and last month he had trouble paying salaries and pensions to civil servants – including the military. Some got part of what was due them, some none at all.

Gbagbo must pay them again this week, and he probably doesn’t have the money. His army has lost every clash with Ouattara’s New Forces since the November election, and he has lost control of the mainly Muslim quarters of Abidjan to the “Invisible Commandos”, essentially an urban branch of New Forces.

So Ouattara is going for broke. Last week he rejected the peace envoy appointed by the African Union, and at the weekend the New Forces launched their final offensive. Or at least they hope it will be the final offensive.

So far they are doing well, and they may just roll over Gbagbo’s disintegrating army and reunite Ivory Coast by force. Even that would leave great bitterness in the south – but it is also possible that Ouattara’s big push will stall after a few days. African armies tend to be weak in logistics, and they usually run out of supplies when they advance too fast. Then it turns into a long, mostly static civil war.

Either way, the old Ivory Coast is finished. What replaces it may be very ugly.


To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 8. (“Christians…Ouattara”)

Gwynne Dyer’s recent book, “Climate Wars”, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.