01/29/2013 12:39 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Losing Mali

A year ago, virtually no one in Washington was paying any attention to Mali. Few Members of Congress would have been able to locate it on a map, and even fewer would have been able tell you much, if anything, about it. Not so today. Thanks to a coup and an Islamist insurgency that has seized half the country, Mali is now front-page news. Today, many in Congress and elsewhere in Washington regard Mali as a grave threat to the stability of the region and a potential source of global terrorism.

Last summer Mali ranked 79th on an index of failed, or potentially failing countries, published by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace. Next summer, however, it will likely rank near the top.

What's happened in Mali should not come as a surprise. One of the poorest nations in the world, Mali has been in serious trouble for more than a decade. Mali, which suffers from chronic hunger and malnutrition, has endured three droughts in the past ten years. A good rainy season might ease its suffering, but water scarcity in Mali is a chronic problem, as are malaria, childhood diseases, maternal mortality, and severe poverty. Yet its population is one of the fastest-growing in the world. Unless fertility rates fall faster than expected, or death rates start to rise, Mali will come very close to tripling its population in the next 40 years. The Population Reference Bureau projects that its population, currently 16 million, will rise to 45 million by 2050.

Such population growth is clearly unsustainable, but women in Mali have little control over their fertility. In terms of gender equality, no other nation scores as poorly as Mali. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development maintains a Social Institutions and Gender Index. The 2012 Index ranked Mali dead last. Even Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo scored higher on gender equality.

With one of the world's fastest growing populations, Mali -- like several other countries in sub-Saharan Africa -- is in a desperate race against demographic projections. Greater gender equality and rising affluence could dramatically slow Mali's population growth rate, but without outside aid countries like Mali have a difficult time making the "demographic transition" to lower birth rates, lower death rates, and sustainable populations.

If Mali is to avoid becoming another Somalia, it desperately needs to educate girls, empower women, and give them the ability to determine the number and spacing of their children. That can be done even in a male-dominated society like Mali's. What are needed are programs that encourage parents to keep their girls in school and delay their marriage to adulthood. Providing free school lunches to girls, for example, can help. Social norms and the status of women can also be changed through "social content" soap operas that provide positive role models for girls and information about family planning options for couples. With a combination of education, gender equality, and access to family planning, Mali could yet avoid becoming a failed state, but time is running out. Once countries like Mali become embroiled in a civil war, it's hard to break the downward spiral.

There are, in fact, several other countries in the region that are at risk of becoming the next Mali. The population of neighboring Niger, which suffers severely from chronic hunger and malnutrition, could nearly triple over the next 40 years. And Niger, which is 80 percent Muslim, could fall victim to the same brand of Muslim extremism that now threatens Mali.

It's no coincidence that some of the worse violence today is occurring in poor countries with rapidly growing populations and strained resources. The House Appropriations Committee, however, has tried now for two years to cut the current level of support for international family planning by 25 percent. There is no budgetary justification for such cuts; every dollar spent by the U.S for family planning assistance saves several times that amount in reduced expenditures for other forms of foreign assistance, including education and maternal and child health.

Military interventions may help to contain the kind of fighting that now afflicts Mali and other failing states, but greater priority must be given to the kinds of programs that can help to prevent such conflicts from arising in the first place.