Originally posted on the Huffington Post

In explaining the uprisings in the Middle East this past month, commentators have discussed demography almost as much as democracy. And though most focused on the number of young people in the streets from Cairo to Tunis, youth are only part of the story.

Historically, youth have been a factor in civil conflicts. Research has found that countries in which 60 percent or more of the population is under the age of 30 are more likely to experience outbreaks of civil conflict than those where age structures are more balanced. An abundance of young people in a country with a weak economy and non-responsive government can leave individuals frustrated by the lack of jobs and opportunities.

But the countries where democratic energy has spilled over in recent weeks have diverse demographic profiles. Over time, most countries progress through a demographic transition from high fertility and high mortality rates to lower mortality and later, lower fertility rates.

Tunisia, where 52 percent of the population is younger than 30, is well into this transition. Tunisia’s age structure is changing in response to a rapid declinein the country’s fertility rate, from an average of five children per woman in the early 1980s to fewer than two children per woman today. Young adults comprise 41 percent of the country’s working-age population, but this “youth bulge” is already shrinking.

Egypt has a more youthful population, with 61 percent under age 30. But it too has progressed further through the demographic transition than many other developing countries. In Yemen, for example, where women have an average of six children each, nearly three-quarters of the population is younger than 30. This is no surprise since half of all married women in Yemen want to avoid pregnancy but are not using family planning.

Political demography helps us understand not only a country’s vulnerability to conflict, but its potential for democratic change. Countries with youthful age structures are highly likely to have non-democratic regimes, but once age distribution becomes more balanced, countries are more likely to achieve and sustain democracy. According to a theory by the Stimson Center’s political demographer Richard Cincotta, this is because the youth bulge and the threat of volatility can be used by autocratic regimes to justify their emergency decrees, rigged elections and pervasive security forces. Mubarak demonstrated this when he suggested that Egypt faces a choice between “chaos or stability.”As age structures grow more mature, societies become less willing to accept the regime’s proposed tradeoff, and efforts to usher in democracy have a greater likelihood of success. Based solely on demographics, Tunisia has a better chance at attaining a representative government than Yemen or Egypt.

We don’t yet know how these dramatic stories will turn out, but any government that wants to succeed needs to address the needs of young people. In the Middle East and North Africa, stagnant job markets, sluggish economies andcorruption have combined to create a bleak picture for those coming of age. But youth are also key human resources for growth and positive change, as seen in the rapid economic ascent of East Asia in the last four decades. The tipping point comes when government embrace policies that promote education, economic opportunities, the empowerment of women through family planning, and equitable access to resources –elements that together strengthen human security. The U.S. can help, through foreign aid programs that boost individual livelihoods, promote development, and support our national security interest in creating strong and healthy nations.

Demography is by no means destiny, but the future of young people and their countries depends on the opportunities ahead of them. If we care about the aspirations of those who have raised their voices these past few weeks, the U.S. must remain engaged with our best development, diplomacy and defense tools. A robust international affairs budget is crucial to this effort and those serious about ensuring a safer, healthier and more prosperous world should resist politically expedient efforts to slash this funding.

Elizabeth Leahy Madsen is a Senior Research Associate at Population Action International.