Thursday, December 18, 2014

On looking at peripheries


For the next little while here at Demography Matters, I'll be posting examinations of various lengths about the demographic dynamics of peripheries, territories and populations both. Part of my reason for this has to do with my own personal interests in the topic, coming from a relatively marginal area of Canada myself. Relationships between peoples and individuals and regions located in the core and periphery and semi-periphery, to borrow the language of world-systems theory, have always interested me, especially as these relationships change.

More of my interest has to do with the ways in which this division of the world is starting to have real consequences for population change. As the distribution of human and economic capital changes, becoming scarce in some parts of the world and more abundant in others, with some being united by borders and others being cut off, real tensions do develop. This is especially so where things change unevenly. What areas are winners? What areas might catch up? What areas might end up declining?

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On how Afghanistan shows the importance of having a census


A recent article by Joseph Goldstein in The New York Times, "For Afghans, Name and Birthdate Census Questions Are Not So Simple", caught my attention.

After long delays, false starts and squandered millions in foreign aid, the great Afghan census is finally underway. The process is more than an exercise in counting bodies but one that, officials hope, will head off the kind of voter fraud that plagued the presidential election this past year.

The census teams generally include a man and a woman who often spend considerable time waiting in front of doors that never open, often because of purdah, the custom of sequestering women indoors away from men not their husbands or relatives and requiring a burqa when outside.

[. . .]

Since census workers began knocking on doors in Kabul this year, they have registered 70,000 people — just 2 percent of the city. Optimistic Afghan officials say it will take years before the entire country is surveyed.

“We believe we will reach 70 percent of the population in five years,” said Homayoun Mohtaat, the project’s director.

Nobody knows just how many people reside in Afghanistan. The last census, in 1979, found some 14.6 million people. Afghanistan’s Population Registration Department currently has records for about 17 million Afghan citizens, according to officials.
Wikipedia's "Demographics of Afghanistan" article notes that, apart from a survey performed in 2009, Afghanistan really has no firm data on demographic trends at all. This, as Goldstein notes, can harm individual lives.

Each name is listed in a clothbound ledger book stacked on sagging metal racks in four dusty rooms in the offices of the department, a government agency.

For years, this is where citizens have come to seek a passport, join the army or change their marital status. Before that can happen, though, the petitioner’s identity must be verified in one of the books. Clerks say they almost never fail to locate an entry, except for people with the bad luck of being listed on the first or last page. Those names and photos have largely worn away from use over the decades.

The clerks who work here have the carnival-worthy ability to guess a person’s age within a year, a necessity in a place where few actually know how old they are.

Mr. Mohtaat guesses the census will yield a count of 35 million to 40 million Afghans.

As Sune Engel Rasmussen writing in The Guardian noted in the case of Kabul, the lack of firm data makes it difficult for governments and others to get a handle on the country's problems. The case of booming Kabul is the particular focus of Rasmussen's article, but doubtless similar stories could be told about other Afghan cities and regions.
Though exact data is impossible to obtain (the last official census was conducted in 1979), Kabul is estimated to be the fifth fastest growing city in the world, with a population which has ballooned from approximately 1.5 million in 2001 to around 6 million people now. The rapid urbanisation is taking a heavy toll on a city originally designed for around 700,000 people. An estimated 70% of Kabul’s residents live in informal or illegal settlements.

“The situation is putting a strain on the existing infrastructure and resources – and makes it difficult to ensure security across Kabul,” said Prasant Naik, country director of the Norwegian Refugee Council, which provides legal counselling and shelter to displaced Afghans and is one of the largest humanitarian organisations in Afghanistan.

A significant share of Kabul’s economy is driven by illicit businesses, such as the drug trade, facilitated by corruption. (According to a recent survey by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan’s opium cultivation hit record levels this year.)

With economic growth slowed from 9% in 2003 to 3.2% in 2014, jobs are scarce and the vast majority of Kabul’s workers are either self-employed or casual labourers.
Afghanistan has many problems. One particularly important problem, I'd argue, is the lack of firm data about just who is living in Afghanistan and what they're doing. Without good data, many things become difficult. Here's to hoping that Afghanistan succeeds in this particular project.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Looking to the science fiction of Monica Hughes and the demographics of the future


Just this week, I've had the occasion to reread prolific Canadian young adult science fiction writer Monica Hughes' 1991 novel Invitation to the Game. I read the book back when it came out in hardcover, as a Grade 6 student on Prince Edward Island, and was impressed. I'm happy to say that the book still holds up as well, that the novel still deserves my warm memories and the awards and good reviews of others. Understandable as a prototype of the dystopias that seem to predominate nowadays in young-adult literature, Invitation to the Game is a novel that I was surprised to find provided an interesting commentary on some of the demographic issues facing us right now.

Monica Hughes, Invitation to the Game


The novel starts in the year 2154, as the 16-year-old protagonist Lisse and her friends graduate from their elite private school to their jobless adult lives. There had been a population crash in the early 21st century, precipitated by pollution, and of necessity robots were made to take over much of the day-to-day routines of human society. Even after the population recovered, however, the robots remained entrenched, with the net effect of dooming most of each coming generation to unemployment. Two of Lisse's friends are lucky enough to end up employed, for a time. The remainder are exiled with Lisse to live out their lives in a "Designated Area", an urban district to which they are confined by internal passports, depending on stipends from a resentful employed minority and grey-market jobs to live. Without any hope of escaping their condition, the young graduate drift into despair until they are invited to "The Game," a mysterious but detailed virtual reality scenario that allows them to escape to another world. Eventually, they do.

This post is not a ridiculous post about space colonization being a solution to issues of unemployment and underemployment, to marginalization and anomie. Any kind of program of space colonization is no kind of answer at all to these issues. Author Charlie Stross' 2007 essay "The High Frontier, Redux" makes the point that, even if there are economically exploitable resources in space, the optimistic dreams of human settlement are unlikely to be realized because human beings are just too fragile to persist. Many things would have to change radically for this to happen, and we don't even know if these radical changes are possible.

This is, however, a post that's concerned about the ethics of this. In this world, as in Hughes' fictional future world, people are a resource. In many parts of the world, people are an increasingly scarce resource, especially people belonging to particular demographics or possessing certain skills. Despite the value of people as a resource, and despite these local scarcities, in many cases people are being prevented from being useful. This might be because of barriers to migration. This might be because of mistaken government policies that prevent others from realizing their talents. Whatever the precise cause, it's fundamentally ill-thought and--I'd suggest--in many ways quite wrong. As Hughes' characters note, this kind of waste might even be very problematic for the survival of any numbers of regimes.

"[I]t seems the Government's not interested in any new ideas."

"That's the problem with this society," Trent interrupted. It is uninterested. Dead in the water. We should scrap it and start over."

"How?" Karen asked, her big voice booming. "Societies tend to go on until they run down by themselves or rot from inside."

"Can you afford to wait that long?" Trent pushed his sharp face aggressively at Karen. "I can't." (13-14)

When considering demographic issues, now and in the future, it's also worth considering the extent to which particular treatments are, or are not, sustainable. Various marginalizations--keeping people out, keeping people down--might be politically convenient, but they might equally be politically dangerous.