Raising news awareness on driving forces behind failing states

December 21, 2011 • Farming Practices, Daily Email Recap

Thanks to Mark O’Connor for this article by UK population writer Brian McGavin, addressed to news editors.

To News Editors: Raising Awareness on Driving Forces Behind Failing States

From: Brian McGavin, writer and analyst.

November 2011

Below I give some interesting and generally unreported facts that give important background on many of the failing states regularly in the news. For example, Somalia, Haiti, Iraq, Palestinian Territory and Afghanistan. It also includes Pakistan and Iran.

Despite the near daily news coverage of these countries, critical, underlying issues are almost never mentioned by journalists reporting endless symptoms and predicaments. These issues add a great deal of insight into the key development challenges facing the countries concerned and by implication the policies of countries like the US, UK and Canada, where billions are being spent in aid and military interventions to try and stabilise failing states.

The aim is to give journalists more balance and context to reports. A simple one or two-sentence addition of data gives a far better understanding of the significance of demographics to a country’s geo-political profile, its aid dependency and social and economic future. (See table below*)

Through 2011 we have seen almost daily coverage of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and armed conflict. While some underlying factors of high youth unemployment, rising food prices, water shortages and fears of growing Islamic fundamentalism are mentioned, the media has decidedly not focused on the troubling demographic realities the Middle East and other crisis-ridden countries face. Good news coverage is not just about immediate events, but fundamental causal symptoms. Here are some examples.

1) Egypt. Hardly any mention has been made of the large and rapidly growing population of Egypt, its extremely small arable land area of just 3 per cent, food imports of 40 per cent and the total dependence now on food imports and aid to sustain the population.

Egypt’s population almost quadrupled in just 60 years, from 21 million in 1950 to 81 million in 2010 and at its current 1.8 per cent annual increase in population, the population could hit 150 million before 2050, unless the birth rate declines. (UNPD data).  Consider the potential for endless and costly food aid and the rapidly growing numbers of unemployed and disaffected young people attracted to violence and extremism.

2) Afghanistan. On December 23, 2009, UK Channel 4 TV news ran a 20-minute lead on selling children and kidnapping people in Afghanistan. The father selling two of his children was portrayed as a ‘victim’ of poverty in being unable to feed or care for his family. The size of his family was not mentioned – but he had a lot of children.

The reporter asked what would happen to the child and was told it was an opportunity for a better education, but no more was asked about the child’s fate. Various ‘experts’ including Joe Klein of the New York Times and the CEO of Oxfam UK were asked for their view. Corruption, poverty and criminality were discussed, but what was not mentioned was the country’s demographic trajectory that would add a great deal of context to the discussion.

The UK Guardian newspaper on 14/9/10 ran a four-page spread on progress in Afghanistan towards meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals by 2015. The prognosis was gloomy, but in all this verbiage, there was just one minor mention of a ‘rising population in Afghanistan’ as one of several environmental factors that may see the country not being able to produce enough food to feed its people. In fact, several interesting factors were mentioned in the article, but does any of this important information get covered in the almost daily news reports of more coalition troops being flown home in coffins?

Among the largely unreported gems was that remaining forests were being chopped down for firewood; water shortages and contamination was growing, with thousands of hungry people fleeing the countryside to cities – particularly Kabul, which at 5m people is now the fastest growing capital city in the world. It is also one of the only capital cities without a proper sewage system. Yet Coalition forces have spent years and billions of dollars of taxpayers’ money in the country without these issues being reported in mainstream media.

3) Haiti, like many of the poorest countries in the world, has one of the lowest per person consumption footprints in the world. In Spring 2010 a world-wide media bonanza descended on the earthquake-stricken island, bringing daily live reports of a human disaster: Almost 98 percent of the forests cut down; raw sewage flushing into the ocean; large-scale illiteracy; lack of fresh water, and not enough food for an island on permanent food aid.

But the media reports never mentioned this was happening on an island that possesses the carrying capacity for perhaps 500,000 people, but the culture of Haiti and the Catholic Church ‘encouraged’ it to grow to over 10 million and counting. Haiti has already wrecked much of its ecological assets and relies on exporting people to USA, Canada, the neighbouring Dominican Republic and even the Bahamas as a safety valve for its extreme population pressures.

US Census Bureau records give the legal Haitian population in the United States exceeding 850,000. In Canada the Haitian diaspora is estimated to be around 1 million. There are also estimated to be over 800,000 illegal Haitians living in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, which accounts for about 10% of its national population. (Wikipedia).

While an increase of rape cases has been mentioned in some news reports since the disaster, a health survey, conducted by UNFPA Haiti in October 2010, found that the pregnancy rate among women age 15 to 49 had tripled in the areas affected by the earthquake, compared to the situation before the disaster. This was never mentioned in on-going media coverage or in NGO aid appeals.

4) In Gaza, around 1.5 million people are crammed onto an arid strip of land 40km (25 miles) long and 6 to 12km wide. Many people live in poverty, with unemployment at 45 percent in late 2010, one of the highest in the world according to the UN. The population has grown by 40 per cent in the past 10 years and is rising by about 5% every year. It is expected to double by 2030 – with family sizes of eight or more not unusual.

5) In Libya, repeated stories of ‘refugees’ – alternatively described as ‘migrant workers’ trying to leave the country were shown on TV, many of them sub-Saharan Africans. What was not reported is that an estimated one in six of Libya’s population is made up of illegal sub-Saharan immigrants trying to reach Europe. Italy eventually paid the Libyan Government to help stop them moving on to Italy. With the chaos, where are these illegal residents heading now, aided by International Refugee Agencies and how did the Libyan Government suddenly acquire so many sub-Saharan mercenaries to brutally attack its own people?

6) Pakistan. The media spent weeks looking at the late 2010 disaster in Pakistan, where one-fifth of the country was flooded by the Indus River. But you don’t hear any information that Pakistan is housing 174 million people on a flood plain and at its current birth-rate the population is set to more than double over the next forty years. That ‘core’ challenge never crosses the lips of CNN, NPR, NBC or the BBC.

7) In Yemen, a nation of 22 million and rising rapidly, grain production has fallen by two thirds over the last 20 years and 19 of Yemen’s 21 aquifers are severely stressed. Yemen now imports 89 per cent of the food it needs according to a recent EU report. World Bank projections say the area around the capital, San’a’ – home to 2 million people and one of the world’s fastest growing cities, may be pumped dry in a few years.

In October, we will have seven billion people. I am sure you will agree that these core issues on huge challenges we are facing need to be brought fully to the public’s attention. I hope you will cascade this information round your teams and let me know. I can add much more.


Brian McGavin,

(UK-based writer, geo-political and environmental analyst)

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