RICHMOND, Va. – The global spread of democracy doesn’t look nearly as promising as it once did.
High hopes for lasting freedom appear to be fading in Russia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia, to name a few countries where authoritarians, extremists, corruption and other forces have undermined fledgling democratic institutions. Dictators have fallen like bowling pins in some places, but the vacuum they left behind hasn’t necessarily been filled by freedom. Elsewhere, police states have proven surprisingly resilient in the face of challenges from globalization, demands for change and the spread of social media.
In the Middle East, epicenter of massive movements for change, “observers are increasingly cynical about the prospects for democracy, arguing that the Arab Spring has turned into an Islamist winter,” the journal Foreign Affairs reports. Radical Islamism is the biggest threat to liberty in the region. However, Foreign Affairs argued that “instead of fretting over Islamists, the international community needs to have a more nuanced conception of political transition in the Arab world and should strive to bolster institutions and economic reforms in post-Arab Spring countries.”
Maybe, but diplomats and democracy activists said the same thing when now-deposed dictators were still in power. Building durable democratic institutions and reforming national economies take time, even under favorable conditions.
Meanwhile, there are larger demographic forces at work worldwide.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman recently compared three major countries: China, India and Egypt. Very different societies, very different governments. “But there is one thing that all three have in common: gigantic youth bulges under the age of 30, increasingly connected by technology but very unevenly educated,” Friedman wrote. "The one that will thrive the most in the 21st century will be the one that is most successful at converting its youth bulge into a ‘demographic dividend’ that keeps paying off every decade, as opposed to a ‘demographic bomb’ that keeps going off every decade. That will be the society that provides more of its youth with the education, jobs and voice they seek to realize their full potential.”
India counted 560 million people under the age of 25 in 2011. Of that number, 225 million were between the ages of 10 and 19. In Egypt, the largest country in the Middle East, a million people are born every nine months, according to one estimate. Sixty percent of all Egyptians are under 25. The total population of the Middle East and North Africa surpassed 430 million in 2007. It’s expected to top 700 million by 2050. One in every three people in the region is between 10 and 24. Asia, by far the largest demographic region of the globe with more than 4 billion people, likely will increase to 5.3 billion by mid-century.
About one in every five people on earth is between the ages of 15 and 24. Eight in 10 of them live in Africa and Asia. As population growth rates stabilize or even decline in the West – particularly Europe – future growth will come almost entirely in the global East and South. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The “demographic dividend” Friedman identified could benefit many countries – if young workers can fuel productivity and prosperity in once-poor areas of the global East and South.
They want jobs. They want better lives. But prosperity alone isn’t enough for them. Even freedom and democracy aren’t enough. They want something more – and they are absorbing ideas from all directions.
“We’re sitting on a tectonic plate that is shifting,” a mission leader in the Middle East told me last year. “If expectations continue not to be met, we’ll see another [political] earthquake. But this is a really good time for anybody who wants to discuss ideas. The marketplace of ideas has changed radically. For the Gospel, we need to be in the conversation.”
Another Christian worker in the region put it this way: “People here are craving life. They’re craving change and not just political and economic change. Their deep heart cry is for answers. What they grew up with is not giving them answers. [The current political turmoil eventually] will create even more of a spiritual harvest. What men meant for evil, God will use for good.”
Most of the people groups currently unreached or unengaged by the Gospel live in the vast eastern and southern regions experiencing rapid population growth. Most of the countries in those regions have a high percentage of children, teens and young adults.
Making disciples among them is the great generational challenge facing the 21st-century church.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Erich Bridges is IMB global correspondent.)