Saturday, September 22, 2012

History and Demography

History has always been a fascinating topic for me. Growing up, I read all I could on a variety of topics, typically military history, although branched out in later years. Many of the posts and opinions that I have are formed by an understanding of nineteenth and (mostly) twentieth century history.

While the Western countries (and China) mostly got older on a median level (median being the age at which half the population are above and half below the line, a better metric than "average" age which is skewed by outliers), for much of the rest of the world the opposite trend occurred. The most dramatic example of this occurs in Africa.

The "African World War(s)" in the 1990's and early 2000's were sparked by events near Rwanda and ultimately inflamed the entire region, home to over a hundred million people and where key natural resources (coltan) were mined. For a high level synopsis of these events go to the wikipedia sites for the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, The First Congo War, and The Second Congo War.

Other than the Rwandan Genocide, which spurred a film and a bit of international soul-searching due to the inability of Western powers to inhibit the massacre, most of the rest of these events are poorly referenced in the world today given the number of deaths and the geo-political impact. I'm not aware of much discussion on this topic other than occasional articles from the BBC and / or ties to the mining of materials and sanctions on companies that violate new US laws (still being written) on "conflict minerals".

If events such as these had happened recently in the United States, they would dominate media and the culture. Even today America is fascinated by our civil war, which occurred one hundred and fifty years ago (there is a Ken Burns' brother documentary on death and dying in the civil war that sounds interesting).

While I haven't researched the local culture in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to understand the impact, a brief look at the median age of countries per this wikipedia page shows some statistics that I find remarkable. The median age in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is 16.5 and for Rwanda it is 18.6. Thus about 50% of Rwanda's population was not even born when the genocide in 1994 occurred, and a much larger population would remember it only sparingly as they were very young.

For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not only does the low median age mean that many would not remember much of the first and only some of the second wars, the country's incredible demography in terms of child bearing resulted in the country's population increasing massively DESPITE THE WAR (per Wikipedia):
The United Nations 2009 estimated the population at 66 million people, having increased rapidly despite the war from 39.1 million in 1992.
What is history? In the West it is a long tide, taught to millions (albeit often poorly), and to some extent linked into our daily lives. I don't think it has the same impact on these other countries where 1) education is poor and literacy is low 2) there is a massive demography change towards the young who would be more consumed with "current" problems rather than issues that arose before their time.

I think many of these same conceptual issues toppled many of the authoritarian regimes in the middle east as the colonialist themes that propped up many of the governments withered in the face of the new generation seeing them for their entire lifetime as just brutal dictators propped up by crony economic partners. With low median ages and a limited appreciation for history (based on poor schooling and literacy), their rage was a match waiting to be struck.

Revolutions are often sparked by hordes of young, jobless males with few prospects. These are those with little to lose and the type of rage and fearlessness upon which the backbones of mobs are forged. While we may look at history on a broad scale, in a population dominated by the middle-aged and elderly, it is a completely different picture in most of the world, and our prism for viewing their perceptions and determining their actions, obsolete.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

No comments: