Will 2050 be the year the world finally gives peace a chance?

Predictions based on population data suggest wars are on the wane. By Daniel Howden in Nairobi

Headlines are dominated by the slow-burning wars in Tanzania and Mozambique. An asymmetrical battle fought in the off-shore gas fields of the Indian Ocean and the endless slums of Dar es Salaam and Pemba grinds on. A changing cast of radical Islamists, coastal separatists and sophisticated pirates have intensified their fight with governments along the Swahili Coast even as the hydrocarbons themselves begin to peak.

This mix of futurology and fiction is one of the possible answers to what the world will look like in 2050. Part of the reason that future wars in now relatively peaceful countries such as Mozambique and Tanzania is the contention that war itself is going to become far less common.

Håvard Hegre, a professor in the department of Political Science at the University of Oslo, is the latest academic to devise a statistical model capable of telling us what is likely to happen in the future. His study, in collaboration with the Peace Research Institute Oslo, claims that in five years' time India, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Uganda and Burma will be at the greatest risk of conflict, while in 40 years, it will be China, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.

For the purpose of the model, war is defined as being between governments and political organisations that use violence and in which at least 25 people die. "The number of conflicts is falling," the professor observes. "We expect this fall to continue. We predict a steady fall in the number of conflicts in the next 40 years. Conflicts that involve a high degree of violence, such as Syria, are becoming increasingly rare."

In other words, the number of wars will halve. In 2009, some 15 per cent of the world's countries were suffering from armed conflicts. That proportion will fall to seven per cent midway through this century, according to the Norwegian researchers' predictions. At its core, the study has taken a detailed history of global conflicts over the last 40 years and added United Nations predictions for key indicators.

Professor Hegre says that "war has become less acceptable, just like duelling, torture and the death penalty". His conflict model shows that the combination of higher education, lower infant mortality, smaller youth cohorts, and lower population growth are a few of the reasons why the world can expect a more peaceful future. The population is expected to grow, but at a slower pace than today, and the proportion of young people will decrease in most countries – with the exception of African ones.

Unfortunately, the Predicting Armed Conflict model has already had to be tweaked to take account of the Arab Spring and renewed Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The authors admitted that since the first findings of the model were published in 2009, conflicts in the Middle East had weakened the clear correlation between socio-economic development and the absence of civil war, while the fighting in Syria and Libya had shown "we also have to include democratisation processes in the model".

While statistics and psychology have been well used in the service of optimism, geographers and historians have also been considerable proponents of pessimism. Mike Davis's widely-praised Planet of Slums takes many of the same indicators fed into Professor Hegre's model and finds a future in which vast proportions of humanity have been warehoused in shantytowns and exiled from the formal economy. Far from peaceable, Mr Davis describes a radically unequal and unstable urban world awaits us.

Much of the variance in what is seen in the crystal ball comes down to differing analyses of what impact the "bottom billion", as Oxford-based economist Paul Collier calls them, will have on the remainder of the world. Professor Hegre's detached data-based approach will have its supporters. But there is, of course, a limit to what you can learn about the future, even from a "dynamic multinomial logit model".