Microstates, Demography of

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Attempts to define microstates are fraught with problems. There are no evident breaks in the size distribution of states, whether by population or by land area. Nor do population and area necessarily go together: States may be small in area but large in population (like Singapore) or large in area and small in population (like Greenland).

Somewhat arbitrarily, it is common to define microstates as political units with a population of less than 1 million. The definition of what constitutes a political unit for this purpose is also somewhat arbitrary: the notion of "state" in this context is by convention expansively interpreted. Microstates may be fully independent, or just have distinct geographic-territorial identities, with their political status ranging from full home rule (for instance, Greenland, a part of Denmark) to gradations of autonomy, as exemplified by such "microstates" as Gibraltar (formerly a British Crown Colony, now a dependent territory of the United Kingdom) or Martinique and Guadeloupe (overseas departments of France). The combination of a demographic criterion–a population below 1 million in 2000–and an expansive notion of what constitutes a state yields more than 70 such states: about a quarter of the "states" of the world. Some 38 of these microstates are formally fully-sovereign states, as signaled by membership in the United Nations. The most recent of these in the early twenty-first century is East Timor, with a population of around 750,000. Many of the UN member states have populations much smaller than that: Nauru and Tuvalu each has an estimated 11,000 people and some 11 others have populations of less than 100,000 each. The rest of the microstates are dependent territories. Most microstates are islands. Most are relatively poor.

Diversity characterizes the economies of microstates, though small size, isolation, fragmentation, limited diversification, and distance from markets are commonly a hindrance to economic growth. Several dependent territories have benefited from substantial metropolitan aid and they and most continental microstates have high income levels as a consequence of being economically well-integrated with affluent neighbors. Some of these, and also some formerly poor island states, achieved success with the new economies of banking and finance. Various microstates that enjoy attractive climate and topography as well as stable administration, especially those in the Caribbean, have vibrant tourism economies.

With few exceptions the populations of microstates, in the early twenty-first century, are as large as they have ever been and, despite declines in fertility, growth rates usually remain at high levels. By global standards, population densities, especially on islands, are also high, and most microstates–other than the minority experiencing significant economic growth–are characterized by emigration, though only rarely is there absolute population decline. Economically successful continental microstates, such as Monaco and Liechtenstein, are characterized by both population growth (at least, as measured in de facto rather than de jure terms) and high levels of international commuting.


Microstates have generally, if sometimes belatedly, experienced the significant fertility declines that occurred in most developing countries in the last half of the twentieth century. A number of countries have, since the 1980s, entered the demographic transition, such as those in Melanesia (Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands), the Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, and the Marshall Islands, retaining annual growth rates of over 2.5 percent. States where fertility has not fallen significantly tend to be poorer and have higher death rates. High rates of natural increase are usually associated with poverty, but also with the possibility of emigration, which is widely regarded as both a safety valve and a means of securing economic growth through remittances.

Many microstates have responded to high population growth rates by adopting family planning policies, but few of their family planning programs have been effective, especially in the African and Pacific island states. Total fertility rates remain very high in several states; in the Marshall Islands, Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands they have fallen below six children per woman only since the 1990s. Much the same is true of Djibouti and the Maldives. Rates of natural increase are generally highest among Pacific island states, but are also very high in the Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, and the Maldives. The limited recourse to family planning reflects the continued economic value of children, the inclination of wives to comply with their husbands' preferences, the prevalence of adoption, and limited access to family planning services, especially where most populations are rural. However, acceptance of the small family system is more common in the Caribbean and in continental microstates. In a number of microstates, including Barbados, Luxembourg, Malta, and Martinique, total fertility rates are well below two children per woman.


Good information on mortality in many microstates is limited. Crude death rates are generally low, reflecting a young age structure in many states. But age-specific mortality rates are often also low: Indeed Andorra, Iceland, Malta, and the French Antilles (Guadeloupe and Martinique) are among the places with the highest life expectancies in the world. The mortality rates in dependent territories tend to be lower than those in independent states, because of superior access to health services. Health services are least adequate and mortality rates highest in microstates that are classified as least developed, including Cape Verde, the Comoros, the Maldives, and East Timor. Life expectancy is below 50 years in the African state of Djibouti and in East Timor.

Mortality rates, especially infant mortality rates, everywhere fell rapidly in the second half of the twentieth century. This decline was associated with the epidemiological transition from infectious and parasitic diseases to chronic non-communicable diseases. The transition occurred in the Caribbean microstates prior to occurring in the Pacific. Indeed, in some Pacific microstates, such as the Solomon Islands, the decline in mortality may have stopped as a result of reduced access to health services.


In continental microstates such as Monaco and Gibraltar populations have long been urban. Most other microstates are becoming increasingly urbanized. Only in the smallest microstates does more than a quarter of the population live in rural areas. In most cases rapid urban growth followed increased post-World War II and post-independence expansion of government activity and spending and the growth of bureaucracies. Urban bias in resource allocation is fairly prevalent. Natural increase is now more significant than rural migration as a contribution to urban growth, posing economic, environmental and social problems in urban centers. Efforts to decentralize populations have occasionally had partial success, such as in Kiribati, but by and large have failed.

A number of continental, politically dependent, and resource rich microstates have experienced substantial immigration. The populations of oil-rich Bahrain and Brunei almost tripled in the last quarter of the twentieth century, through labor migration; the Netherlands Antilles, Turks and Caicos, the Cayman Islands, San Marino, Andorra, and the Channel Islands have also experienced rapid growth through tourism and finance. Several political dependencies, including Guam, Ceuta and Melilla, Mayotte, and the French Caribbean islands have experienced similarly rapid immigration from nearby but impoverished independent states.

A number of mainly small and remote island microstates have experienced sustained emigration, notably Pitcairn (which may become totally depopulated), Niue, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, and Montserrat. A few dependent territories, notably the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, the Northern Marianas, and American Samoa, have become stepping stones for onward migration to affluent metropolitan states, usually the United States. In each of these territories, population growth has also been very rapid.

In most island microstates, international population flows are the major regulators of demographic change. Emigration characterizes many states, especially such Pacific states as Tonga, Samoa, Tokelau, and the Cook Islands. In those states and elsewhere migration is oriented to former or existing colonial powers and is primarily due to economic reasons. Remittances, from migrants in metropolitan states, sometimes sustained over generations, are the main source of national income–often contributing more than foreign aid and exports combined. Remittances are primarily directed toward consumption rather than investment, although less so than formerly, and thus tend to reinforce dependency. The rise in the significance of migration and remittances in several microstates has caused them to be characterized as MIRAB economies, an acronym referring to their heavy dependence on Migration, Remittances, and Aid, thereby promoting a Bureaucratic form of development.

In several states, such as Tokelau, Niue, Anguilla, and Montserrat, the majority of citizens live outside the country. International migration is selective by age and skills, and has caused a skill-drain from many states. Return migration has been small and is usually dominated by those in unproductive age groups. Despite limits imposed by destination countries, hope of opportunities for emigration in most island states remains undiminished. In some atoll states, concerns over rising sea levels are a further stimulus to emigration.

Achieving sustainable development is a formidable challenge for most microstates, especially the smaller, more remote island states. Young populations place strains on land and other resources, and on education systems, employment, and social organization. Some states are experiencing a fall in the standard of living and a rise in crime rates. Development in most states will be increasingly urban, is unlikely to be self-sustaining, especially if aid fatigue occurs, and will continue to be linked to migration. Yet there is no single observable pattern for the future: Microstates are enormously diverse, demographically as well as in other respects. They represent every global extreme.

See also: States System, Demographic History of.


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——. 1999. "Environmental Change, Economic Development and Emigration in Tuvalu." Pacific Studies 22: 1–20.

Connell, John, and Dennis Conroy. 2000. "Migration and Remittances in Island Microstates: A Comparative Perspective on the South Pacific and the Caribbean." International Journal of Urban and Regional Development 24(1): 52–78.

Connell, John, and John Lea. 1992. "My Country Will Not Be There: Global Warming, Development and the Planning Process in Small Island States." Cities 9: 295–309.

——. 2002. Urbanisation in the Island Pacific. Towards Sustainable Development. London: Routledge.

John Connell