Why doesn’t the “bulge” burst in Zimbabwe?

By Tony Reeler

There is a growing interest in the consequences of the growing populations of young people in many countries. Various commentators have speculated about the effects of large youth bulges in North Africa and the Middle East, and disaffected youth are seen by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) as being one factor in the relatively large increase in protests around the world. Citing the International Labour Organisation (ILO) report, World of Work Report 2013: Repairing the Social Fabric, the EIU points out that marked social unrest and protest was recorded in 46 of the 71 countries covered in the ILO report. The implications behind the unrest are not wholly clear, but, following Ivan Krastev, in his article, From Politics to Protest, the EIU describes the protests (rather dismissively) as “rebels without a cause”. The main point raised by Krastev, and endorsed by the EIU, is that this is all sturm und drang, and possibly just the kind of letting off steam needed by unresponsive governments.

However, this seems at odds with the growing literature on “youth bulges”, an increasing demographic phenomenon in developing countries, and a conundrum in Zimbabwe. Briefly, the evidence suggests that when a country’s demography shows a bulge in the young population of greater than 30% of the total population, bad things start to happen, and irrespective of whether the country is a democracy or an autocracy. The thesis, perhaps originally proposed by Samuel Huntington, has been both supported and amended by a number of careful statistical studies. Most interesting of these has been a series of studies by Henrik Urdal (Urdal.2004; Urdal.2006), corroborated by other work (Cincotta.2008). In his later work, Urdal tested six hypotheses about the effects of youth bulges:

Hypothesis 1: Countries that experience youth bulges are more likely to experience political violence than countries that do not.
Hypothesis 2: The higher the dependency burden, the stronger the effect of youth bulges on political violence.
Hypothesis 3: The lower the economic growth, the stronger the effect of youth bulges on political violence.
Hypothesis 4: The greater the expansion of higher education, the stronger the effect of youth bulges on political violence.
Hypothesis 5: The more autocratic a country, the stronger the effect of youth bulges on political violence.
Hypothesis 6: The higher the urbanisation rates, the stronger the effect of youth bulges on political violence.

When tested against a very large data set, the models generated provide food for thought in the conclusions reached, but the interactions are complex and do not allow a simple conclusion that youth bulges per se are a problem. Defining political violence as internal armed conflict, terrorism and riots, Urdal concludes that, simply, the greater the youth bulge the greater the risk of political violence for both autocracies and democracies, but this is mediated by the finding that it is countries intermediate between these two extremes that are at the greatest risk. Furthermore, each of the factors identified above – dependency burdens, lowered economic growth, increased rates of higher education, and urbanisation – all interact with youth bulges in different ways, and depending on the country context.

So what could this all mean for Zimbabwe, a country where the youth bulge is large – : youth (under 30 years) comprise 69.8% of the total population, and 74% of the unemployed according the most recent census (Zimstat.2012). Now there is and has been political violence in Zimbabwe, but this is mostly one-way traffic, and government-sponsored in all probability, but certainly condoned by government. But there is no internal armed conflict, terrorism, or riots in Zimbabwe, and why not?

Well, in part the answer comes from Urdal’s work: “A factor that partly determines the violent potential of youth bulges is the access to emigration”. This applies in the case of Zimbabwe, as the majority of the Zimbabweans emigrating, whether legally or not, are the youth. Although very difficult to estimate accurately, given the enormous irregular migration to South Africa and Botswana, statistics calculated from just those leaving the country through ports, rose from 359,095 in 2008 to 1,077,743 in 2010 (Zimstat.2010). 45% of the Zimbabweans in South Africa are reckoned to be under 30 years. A UNDP study estimated that over three million Zimbabweans were living outside the country. With the 2012 Census claiming that the population living in Zimbabwe was slightly more than 13 million, this migration is clearly a very significant portion of the population.

So migration clearly is taking the pressure off, but it may also be that other factors mitigate the effects of this enormous youth bulge. Remittances from the diaspora are certainly alleviating both the economic decline and the effects of dependency. It is difficult again to accurately estimate the extent of remittances, but one study suggested that estimated remittances from the United Kingdom alone amounted to £0.94 billion in 2007 (Zimbabwe Institute.2009). Official estimates in Zimbabwe by the same UNDP study were US$1.4 billion in 2009 through official routes, but the same study pointed out that studies in South Africa indicated that 98% of Zimbabweans remitted money back through informal routes. It is possible that remittances into Zimbabwe are the equivalent of the fiscus, 75% of which is now used for paying about 290,000 government workers and the security sector.

Finally, the highly efficient repressive machinery employed by the government to curb dissent also keeps the lid on the pressure cooker of the youth bulge. And here the youth are consistently mindful of the consequences of civic participation, but one wonders what might happen when they are no longer fearful or the ability to repress diminishes?

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