Statement

Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Youth and Population in the Middle East: Expanding Opportunity and Hope"

25 April 2002
Author: UNFPA

Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to present my views on Demography, Politics and Stability in the Middle East. It is a pleasure to be here at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which is dedicated to scholarly research and informed debate on United States interests in the Middle East.

Because of the growing size and importance of the youth population, my presentation will focus on "Youth and Population in the Middle East: Expanding Opportunity and Hope".

Demographic issues in the Middle East have gained increased attention since the tragic events of 11 September 2001 and the escalating crisis between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory and are an increasing topic of policy debate. During the past few months, we have seen news reports expressing fear about the burgeoning youth population in the region and the radicalization of the Arab masses.

Earlier this month, the author and Yale history professor, Paul Kennedy, wrote an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune asking, "Will Israel Survive." In the article, he cited the "exploding population trends across the Middle East," which, he said, "spell deep trouble".

There is no doubt that demographics and population are linked to political stability and instability. As the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I look at the issue from the perspective of development. At a time when anger and rancour are filling the world, when many people are focused on hate and blame, sorrow and loss, others are looking at the root causes of human conflict and asking what it will take to heal the world. What will help us to address the underlying development issues on which peace rests?

When we think about population and demographics, we tend to think about statistics and numbers. But while projections are necessary for planning and effective policy-making, we must look beyond the numbers to a vision of the future. We must realize that behind each number is a person, like you and me, with his/her own needs and aspirations.

While there is much concern, rightly so, about water and food resources in the Middle East, there is another vital resource that deserves increased attention, and that is young people.

Today, we see massive demonstrations of young people on the streets, something that has not happened for many years. There is growing unrest and there is a growing perception of inequality and injustice. Like young people everywhere, Arab youth want to participate in their societies, they want peace and jobs, they want social justice, they want a better life for themselves and their families.

And although suicide bombers claim our attention, there is another phenomenon that is very serious and we need to give it our full attention - that is the radicalization of youth. For when you combine chronic poverty with a feeling of injustice or neglect and a lack of legitimate means to address these problems, a path is paved to extremism.

I will only highlight some of the main issues that have accelerated the radicalization of young people all over the world, more so in the Middle East, but will focus on population growth, poverty and lack for opportunities for both men and women.

Ladies and gentlemen, both the internal and the external context of the region make young people discouraged and dissatisfied. Internally, all the progress that has been achieved so far - and believe me there has been much progress - is overshadowed by the failure of national institutions to deliver the promised vision of a better life. Young people can only see the failure of national systems to meet their growing aspirations to have options in their lives, to meet their immediate needs in health, education and employment, to democratize the societies and to establish a viable and enabling environment for participation and assurances for human rights.

With the world becoming a small village as a result of the communications revolution, images of what a quality life should be is projected daily on our television screens at home and in the public space. But these images, though greatly admired, are illusions to the young people in many of the region's countries. They merely add to their frustrations because they know they will never be able to attain anything near that life. These images of another life, along with the technological and social changes that have taken place in these societies, create a new tension for youth - tension between traditions, as they understand them, and modernity, as projected by the media and as exercised by the elite of their societies. What choice do they have in the face of such dilemma? They can either seek the security of what they know best and what is possible to hold on to- the traditions and religions of their societies or, as some have chosen, to drop out of the society and escape into drug addiction and similar destructive behaviour. Having said this, I must emphasize that there are many successful young people, but most of them are struggling to make a living. My generation grew up in an environment of hope, nationalism, a clear sense and belief in an Arab identity, faith in society and in the future; but the young generation now are living in an environment in which despair, loss of identity, exclusion and poverty prevail.

This generation has grown up in a global environment of wars and military conflicts and certainly in a very volatile and explosive Middle East. Both the long-drawn Palestinian plight in the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the suffering of the Iraqi people mobilize popular feelings and anger. The economic actions, for example sanctions, taken by the international community against mostly Muslim and/or Arab countries (Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan) makes young people in the region ask: Why us? They do not see the justice, for example, in applying sanctions approved by the Security Council of the United Nations on Iraq, Libya and Sudan and not insisting on applying the relevant resolutions on ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and bringing peace to the region.

The young people, by nature, are idealistic and they have very sensitive antennae that pick up messages of inequality and double standards. They see social injustice and economic inequality in their own societies as well as among countries and among regions of the world. They see a world where the rich and the powerful, nationally and globally, determine the fate of poor people and deprive them of opportunities to live in an enabling environment that opens the doors of the present and the future for them. The much talked about negative impact of globalization is what they see and thus they resist it and even fight it. That is why the heads of State of Members of the United Nations spoke, through their Millennium Summit Declaration, of the need to ensure that globalization works for the poor before it benefits the rich. The called for a present and a future that is "free from want" and "free from fear".

It is a vicious circle, though. On the one hand, the Millennium Declaration is a commitment at the highest level, aiming to respond to the rapidly changing global environment, which brings with it new values and modes of operations. On the other hand, in response to the power of economic, social and even cultural globalization, people react defensively to assert what they know best and what gets them together - their faith and their identity. And yet, this very same expression of identity, coming as a response to exclusion and social injustice, brings about militancy and extremism which in turn is sanctioned by the international community and seen as a destabilizing factor in the Middle East region.

Ladies and gentlemen, the false allure of political and religious extremism exerts a powerful pull. If young people do not have constructive outlets for their energies and talents, the possibility exists that they will turn to violence and align themselves with extremist groups. Their only other option is to drop out of the society by escaping into the abuse of drugs, yet another illness that kills young people and takes away from societies' capacities for regenerating themselves.

One of the answers to this downward spiral lies in development-balanced development that encompasses education and health, human rights, good governance and the rule of law; strong institutions and environmental protection. It is possible only through development that encourages sound policies that give a voice and opportunities to all.

Nineteen months ago, world leaders meeting at the Millennium Summit, agreed that we should use the first 15 years of this new century to begin a major onslaught on poverty, illiteracy and disease, and together they set specific targets-the Millennium Development Goals. The Summit placed the problems of young people as the centre of its commitment to change their lives and thus their fate.

As part of the United Nations system, we are focused on meeting these goals-to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, to reduce infant and maternal mortality, to provide universal primary schooling, to improve gender equality, and to develop strategies to reduce joblessness among youth.

If we are serious about improving our prospects for peace and security, we must join hands to create the conditions in which the young people of today and tomorrow can prosper and thrive. The real challenge is to meet the needs of today's generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Therefore, the ultimate objective is not stabilizing population growth; rather it is ensuring that people have a quality of life and choices in their lives that would lead, among other results, to lowering fertility and stabilizing population growth.

I firmly believe that, as long as people continue to wake up without hope that things will change, the situation will remain precarious, not just in the Middle East but for the world as a whole. The radicalization of young people is not an Arab region phenomenon; rather it is a global one, from the green parties in the North to the various forms of popular movements in the South. And the two find common areas for cooperation and linkages and mutual support and we must listen to them. The youth of the world want to be free from want and free from fear. They want social justice and economic participation. They want the future which society has promised them.

If we look at the population projections in the Middle East, we see that, in some countries, nearly one half of all people are under the age of 15. Overall, the Arab population is expected to double in the next 22 years. This is an improvement from earlier projections that it would double in 19 years because fertility rates are declining, education rates are improving and more and more young women are getting married at later ages. But because there are so many young people today, and because fertility remains high in some countries and in different populations within countries, there will be substantial population increases in the decades ahead.

Syria's population is forecast to rise from 16.6 million to 36.3 million in the next one half-century; Saudi Arabia's from 21 million to almost 60 million; Iraq's from 23.6 million to 53.6 million; Jordan's from 5 million to almost 12 million; Kuwait's from 2 to 4 million; Egypt's from 69 million to nearly 114 million and Yemen's population is forecast to grow more than five-fold from 19 million today to more than 102 million in the next 50 years. The population of the Occupied Palestinian Territory is projected to more than triple from 3.3 million to 11.8 million.

These projections do present challenges and we must help the governments and people in the region to address them. But these numbers are threats when the environment remains that of poverty, deprivation, social injustice, lack of opportunities and political exclusion. No matter how large or small the population is, if the prevailing environment is that of depravity and economic and social exclusion, tensions will build and explosion will take place. And that is where my agency, the United Nations Population Fund, has a key role to play.

We have worked for three decades in close partnership with developing countries in all regions. We are currently supporting efforts in more than 140 countries to address reproductive health and population issues. In addition to our own staff and representatives in the Middle East, we are working with the United Nations regional commissions and the League of Arab States to develop effective population and development policies in each country in line with international standards and goals. The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia maintains a Population Policy Information System and works closely with the League of Arab States to hold periodic meetings of the heads of the national population commissions to highlight problems related to the growing population to recommend solutions and to ensure that countries have population policies in place.

One of the critical aspects of population and development policies is access to reproductive healthcare, including family planning. If a woman cannot control the number, spacing and timing of her children, she has little control over the rest of her life and it is more difficult to break the cycle of poverty and ill health. If a couple cannot plan their families and if they have no access to reproductive health services, population will remain a security challenge the world over. The unmet economic and social needs of the population drive the situation and bring about the threats to the society.

Today, in many countries of the region, higher levels of schooling, better survival rates of infants and children, and increased access to contraception have led to smaller, healthier families. In most countries today, people want and are having fewer children.

Countries of the Middle East in general are experiencing improvements in the health of children, high primary enrolment rates, and rising life expectancy. Demographically, most countries in the region have relatively high population growth rates, young populations, and a high percentage of married couples, particularly at younger ages. Fertility rates are falling, but not as rapidly as in Latin America and Asia. The average number of children has dropped from 6.6 in 1950 to 3 today. About 40 per cent of married couples are using contraceptives.

Education is a major underlying factor influencing age at first marriage and contraceptive use-both of which help to determine family size. Studies show that even a few years of formal education makes a difference. In most countries, women with primary education have fewer children than women with no education.

In Oman, for instance, surveys show that women with no education have an average of 8 or 9 children, compared to 3 or 4 children for women who have completed secondary schooling. In Yemen, an uneducated woman has 7 children, compared to between 4 and 5 children for a woman with primary schooling, and 3 children for a woman who has completed high school.

In neighbouring Iran, there is a success story in the national effort to stabilize population and the Minister of Public Health, on behalf of his Government, received the United Nations Population Award in 1998. The Government has made women's and children's health a priority and voluntary family planning programmes have cut the birth rate in half during the past decade. Today, the population structure of Iran looks like that of a developed country-the average woman chooses to have two children and young women make up more than 40 per cent of the country's university students. Teenage pregnancy is very uncommon and three quarters of women have access to and use contraception. Yet, even with this great success, pressures for livelihood and a better future for young people still appear at the top of the list of development efforts.

Another success story is Egypt, where the population growth rate is on the decline. Egypt received the United Nations Population Award in 2000 for its national efforts, by the Government and civil society, to expand reproductive health services, including family planning, for the people. Other success stories abound outside the Middle East region -

Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Kerala, in India, to name a few. Yet, all of these countries share with Iran the same experience of having to deal with pressures for livelihood for young people and a better quality of life for all generations.

Although we are making progress, much work remains to be done. In the Middle East, there are emerging risk factors that are related to a growing younger population that is exposed to new dynamics and behaviours. The rapid pace of urbanization in most countries, improvements in education and the spread of the mass media have exposed people to new ideas, new values, and new expectations.

Given the youthful profile of the population in the Middle East, there is a real need for job creation. Signs of poverty and unemployment are on the rise in all non-oil producing Arab States. In the Gulf countries, governments have adopted a policy of replacing expatriate workers with nationals to absorb the upcoming labour force, though it is not moving as fast as possible. Probably the most successful efforts in this area, so far, can be found in Oman.

Population dynamics and the large proportion of migrants pose special challenges. The United Nations Population Fund is one of four agencies directly involved in the International Migration Policy Programme, which is a global programme to build government capacity and cooperation to better manage migration flows at national and regional levels.

In the Middle East, the low status of women and girls remains a cause of concern, maybe with the exception of Tunisia, where much progress has taken place. Despite improved conditions in some countries, women still face considerable social, economic and legal barriers to exercising their rights. Women's participation in society is important for effective development and for efforts of peace, reconciliation and reconstruction. Young women are part of this generation that is radicalized by poverty and lack of opportunities.

Everything we have learned over the past few decades shows that when women are empowered through better, laws, education and healthcare, the benefits go far beyond the individual. Families are better off and so are countries. We should not underestimate the powerful role that women can play in building social cohesion and in fostering positive social change. Women are strong advocates for dialogue, consensus, and open political space. When they can make decisions about the spacing and number of their children, they contribute to population stabilization and improvement of the quality of their lives, that of their families and communities.

Our efforts in the region are aimed at helping governments balance population and development goals and improve people's quality of life. All our efforts continue to build on the momentum created by the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, where the world's governments moved population policy away from a narrow focus on numbers and targets to an emphasis on human well-being and human rights. We are mobilizing human and financial resources to provide universal access to primary education and reproductive health care, which includes voluntary family planning, care during pregnancy and birth, and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.

We are working with both men and women to break the vicious cycle of discrimination and gender-based violence that limits the potential of people and nations. As a priority, we are focusing on young people and their need for culturally-sensitive reproductive health information and services. To reduce high rates of maternal mortality, we are working to improve health standards by training delivery attendants and by helping to set up referral programmes for emergency obstetric care. However, despite efforts, several million people in the Middle East still lack access to reproductive health information and quality services, and demand is growing as the population increases.

But, while the need for our services is great, we are currently confronting a shortage of funds. As a United Nations development agency, we rely on voluntary contributions, and the great bulk comes from governments. We have 126 donor countries, but 15 industrial countries provide 90 per cent of our budget. Every industrial nation supports us; some of them, like the Netherlands and Norway, are extremely generous.

The big exception, so far this year, is the United States. And I am talking to you today as people who can exert influence or who have special relations with the United States Administration. A bipartisan majority in both Houses of Congress approved a $34 million contribution to the UNFPA, for this year based on the budget proposal submitted by the President himself. But, so far, it has not been released by the Administration despite the support of Secretary of State Colin Powell. It is held up, according to Senator Barbara Boxer, by domestic politics. She and 125 other Congressmen and women have signed a letter to the President, calling for the release of the voted funds. Until the decision is made, we have had to cut our programmes in countries that often have large young populations and are poor. This is a recipe for a calamity.

Good health and education are the very foundation for escaping from poverty and building a decent dignified life. Reducing poverty and widening choices will reduce the prospects of conflict and instability. The United States was instrumental in creating the United Nations Population Fund in the late 1960s, under the Nixon Administration and it should remain a leader in supporting us today. In today's rapidly changing world, population growth, reproductive health and family planning are vital policy concerns. In fact, I would encourage you to visit some of our project sites on one of your next study tours.

Ladies and gentlemen, around the world, young people are an enormous, untapped reservoir of initiative and entrepreneurship, who must be full partners in the development process, but whose energies and leadership are often held in check by poverty, misrule, conflict and discrimination. Just as developing countries themselves must spend more money on the poor, fight corruption, and respect human rights and the rule of law, the wealthier countries must support them by providing more debt relief, opening their markets, and providing more and better-targeted aid and investment.

The conditions in which young people grow up shape their perspectives and their actions. Let us choose the right policies today so that the rising expectations of youth are met not with frustration and resentment but with opportunity and hope.