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All Our Challenges in the Next Decade Are Interlinked

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Dileep Padgaonkar began his distinguished career in journalism at the age of 24. After receiving a doctorate in humanities from the Sorbonne in June 1968, he joined the Times of India as its Paris correspondent. He served the paper in various capacities before he was appointed its editor in 1988, a post he held for six years. In between, from 1978 to 1986, he also worked with UNESCO in Bangkok and Paris.

NEW DELHI - All our key challenges in the next decade are interlinked. In order to meet them, we need to fully understand how they are related.

Widening economic disparities, for example, have a bearing on the growth of crime, religious and ethnic extremism and terrorism. Similarly, the failure to reach an international agreement on effective policies to arrest, and eventually reverse, the adverse impact of climate change would make all the difference between poverty and destitution for vulnerable swathes of the population worldwide.

On the other hand, technologies like ICT, phone-banking and net-working, properly deployed, could go a long way to bolster development, democratize governance, encourage cultural exchanges, improve public health and provide clean energy. Linkages of this nature, at the regional and global levels, will need to be tracked.

This has indeed been the endeavor of scholars of global affairs. Significant in this regard are, for instance, the Alternative Worlds 2030 report of the US Central Intelligence Agency and the Global Risk 2013 Report of the World Economic Forum. Reports published by think tanks like the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group also contain data and analyses that finesse our understanding of the issues.

1 - ECONOMIC DISPARITIES

Economic disparities between countries and within them will continue to threaten peace and stability of societies across the globe. Twenty years ago, the gap between the richest and the poorest ones was 75 to 1. A decade later, it was 100 to 1. The gap has widened further over the past ten years. According to latest estimates, at least 40 per cent of the global population reels under acute deprivation.

Income inequalities have also accelerated within nations even though in some of them - notably China and India - economic reforms have lifted millions of people out of grinding poverty. Large swathes of the population, especially in the rural areas, are denied access to basic amenities - food, shelter, potable water, sanitation, health care and education. State institutions find it harder and harder to cope with the fall-out: migration to urban areas, growing incidence of violence and galloping anarchy.

Attention will have to focus on Asia - with 60 per cent of the world's population - and Africa - with 15.5 per cent. Developments within ten of the most populous countries in these two continents will need to be closely tracked: China, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Japan, Philippines, Ethiopia and Vietnam. Together they constitute 53 per cent of the global population but just about 12 per cent of the global land area.

In terms of GDP per capita, only Japan falls in the category of high income nations, China and Indonesia among the upper middle income ones while the other seven are in the lower income group. These disparities are reflected in the human development index and in issues such as current account and fiscal deficits, energy consumption, corruption, crime rates and 'failed state' status. The challenges faced by individual nations vary considerably. So do their approaches to overcome them. Of great significance in this regard would be the decisions taken at the Third Plenum of the Communist Party of China's Central Committee in November 2013 to embark on a new, comprehensive agenda of economic reforms. The key question would be whether a one-party political structure can truly modernize the economy and society.

Many challenges however also overlap. On this count, the importance of regional and extra-regional factors cannot be under-estimated. Existing mechanisms of cooperation at regional and international levels to address emerging problems would need to be revamped. That process is already underway - in fits and starts. Its outcome will have a critical bearing on global stability.

2. GLOBAL FINANCE AND TRADE

Some signs of the possible outcome are already in sight. The supremacy of strong Western economies (along with Japan and Australia) has been questioned by several non-Western nations either singly or collectively. Thus, oil-producing nations like Iran, Russia and Venezuela have agreed, or are about to agree, to trade in currencies other than the US dollar. So has China. Trends like these could exacerbate political rivalries as these countries seek to a greater say in the functioning of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

Counter-trends are on the horizon too. As America's reliance on oil from the Middle East lessens, as its currency strengthens and as it redefines its relations with hitherto hostile countries like Iran, it is showing signs of turning away from the World Trade Organization to explore new options to protect and promote its economic and strategic interests. Two such options to erect another kind of a global trading system are already on the cards. One is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that would create a free trade area of North America and East Asia ( including once-protectionist Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam and some others. And the other, the Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the United States and the European Union.

These moves, some commentators argue, are intended to contain China. But that appears to be far-fetched considering China's increasing integration in the global economy. The key question is how the emerging architecture will affect global trade. Currently, ten countries control close to 60 per cent of this trade, forty other countries control another 30 per cent while the remaining 150 countries control a mere 10 per cent. Does this announce a multi-polar world order or will we witness a new avatar of the dominance of some powerful nations over the far more numerous weaker ones?

3. CLIMATE CHANGE

The world now largely acknowledges the dangers of global warming. The media have been playing a powerful role in raising public awareness about them. But the media tend to highlight natural disasters like flash-floods, hurricanes, typhoons and tornados that can be attributed to global warming. Techniques to foretell them have vastly improved thanks to effective international cooperation. That has led to the improvement of relief and rehabilitation of victims. On this score, too, swift cooperation between nations has been on the rise.

However, the media have paid insufficient attention to processes that do not lend themselves to dramatic images. These include deforestation, depletion of fish stocks in rivers, seas, lakes and oceans, rapid extinction of plant and animal species, growing salinity of land, not to mention ever-increasing atmospheric pollution. Their impact on lives and livelihood spells unmitigated disaster.

Another aspect of climate change that would need more sustained study is its impact on security. Naval installations are particularly vulnerable. Land-slides in mountainous terrains pose severe problems for the transport of forces and military equipment. Maintaining tranquillity on frontiers between countries that lie on high-altitude glaciers that show evidence of melting - such as the one in Siachin on the India-Pakistan border - will test human endurance quite beyond imagination.

4. WATER-RELATED PROBLEMS

Global warming, along with rapid industrialization and urbanization in emerging economies, is certain to aggravate fresh water scarcity. It is already a source of concern in China, South Asia, South Africa, Turkey and the Middle East inasmuch as it affects food security and development as a whole. This, in turn, could heighten chances of regional conflicts.

The primary reason is that out of 148 countries in the world that have trans-border water resources, 37 have so far failed to evolve mechanisms to share them in an equitable manner. These countries happen to be among the most populous ones on earth. In a very large number of cases, the countries have also had protracted rivalries. The Middle East has attracted international interest due to the strategic stakes in the oil-rich region. But so should the Himalayan range whose glaciers supply water to seven major rivers - Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Salmeen, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow. Lower riparian states routinely confront the twin dangers of floods and droughts.

Efforts by upper riparian states to build dams on these rivers, or to change their course, could be a source of severe conflicts in the years ahead. This is true, for example, of India and Pakistan. Three major rivers that provide water to Pakistan run through the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. So far a treaty for sharing these waters has worked reasonably well. But there is a growing clamor in Pakistan to abrogate it on the grounds that it does not receive its fair share of water.

River disputes between China, on the one hand, and India, or South-east nations, on the other, could escalate in the near future. Whether they can summon the political will and imagination to pre-empt the escalation is a moot point. In the plainest of words, a huge, even bitter, scramble for fresh water, much like the scramble for energy supplies, minerals and marine resources, could jeopardize peace and stability in large swathes of the globe.

5. ENERGY

The demand for energy to meet the requirements of the global economy continues to gallop even as conventional sources - such as fossil fuels - get depleted while non-conventional ones - nuclear, solar, wind etc - cannot be fully tapped. This is partly due to costs and, as in the case of nuclear energy, to safety and environmental concerns. Rising energy costs stymie economic growth, especially in the most populous and poorest countries. China and India will have to face the brunt not least because their future energy needs require capacity building on a colossal scale.

What is bound to worsen the situation is disruption of energy supplies on account of natural calamities, accidents, economic sanctions, terror acts and civilian strife in energy-producing countries. The urgent necessity of concerted global action - including in the area of clean technologies - cannot be under-estimated. At the very least, large, non-OECD producers of energy that happen to be concentrated in the Middle East, Russia and Central Asia could make common cause with consumers of energy with whom they have easy and cost-effective land connectivity. The big beneficiaries could be China and South Asia.

Shale technology and the production of fuel from waste material have the potential to be game changers in humankind's insatiable appetite for energy.

6. SOVEREIGNTY

The classical concept of the sovereignty of a nation-state is likely to undergo even more changes than the ones we have witnessed since the end of the second world war. Globalization of the economy has brought in its wake an erosion of the ability of a state to tightly control trans-national financial flows. It is in a less and less position to shape the decisions of institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, let alone those of multi-national corporate bodies. The same holds true of control on information flows through TV, radio, the Internet etc.

Add to this two other factors. One relates to the growing significance of the doctrine of pre-emption: the right to intervene in countries that pose a potential threat to other countries, including, especially, the neighboring ones, or indeed to their own populations. Significant in this regard is the adoption of Responsibility to Protect by the UN summit in 2005. Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali are recent examples. Many others could follow suit given the growing number of countries that face internal strife involving sub-nationalist, ethnic, religious, sectarian and terror groups. Over the next couple of years, the situation in the Pak-Afghan region following the withdrawal of foreign forces will be a litmus test of the ability and willingness of the concerned countries to re-consider their views about national sovereignty.

The other factor is trans-national drug and prostitution trafficking. They are no respecters of national sovereignty.

But consider the plus side of this erosion of sovereignty. There are instances when nations have voluntarily parted with it. Consider the European Union and ASEAN. Consider, too, how nations have agreed to abide by internationally- agreed limits to carbon emissions or to implement reforms regarding tariffs, privatization, cuts in subsidies etc sought by agencies like the WB and the IMF. The trajectory of sovereign prerogatives of a nation state promises to be one of the most interesting story of the next decade.

7. EXTREMISM AND TERROR

No end is in sight to the mushroom growth of extremism involving non-state actors, sometimes with the complicity of the state. What fuels it is religious bigotry, hyper-nationalism, racism, regional or sub-regional chauvinism, sectarian rivalries and class conflict. Extreme left-wing forces - particularly active in India, Nepal and in some areas of Latin America - are far less numerous than the right-wing ones. The latter have been on the ascendant in developed and developing countries alike. In some of them their clout has reached alarming proportions. They include the Middle East, Central, South and South-east Asia and parts of Africa.

Governments in these regions find it increasingly difficult to cope with this phenomenon. Some, like Pakistan, seem to be running with the terrorist hare and hunting with the anti-terrorist hound. Sooner than later this policy is bound to unravel. The nightmare of the international community is that the more coherent state institutions, such as the military, would be in no position to prevent terror groups from gaining access to weapons of mass destruction. That is why what transpires in the Af-Pak region over the next few months and years will be a source of anxiety to the West and the rest, including China and India. The security of the global community is at risk.

8. DEMOGRAPHY

Imbalances between a greying population in the industrially-advanced countries and a 'youth bulge' in the developing ones will have a profound impact on societies in many parts of the world. In the former, the ratio between working-age citizens and citizens who have retired is all set to increase. Europe and Japan are going to face serious risks on this score. They will be constrained to import both skilled and unskilled labour from the poorer countries. Their current immigration policies will have to be revised from end to end. But that, in turn, could aggravate problems of integrating migrants in the host countries. As a result, xenophobic forces could get a fillip.

The 'youth bulge' phenomenon will also throw up highly contentious issues. According to UN estimates, there are more than 100 countries where individuals in the 15-29 age group account for more than 40 per cent of the population. A majority of them are in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle-east and South Asia. If these countries fail to provide education and vocational skills to youth and to give them access to jobs they will face a dread prospect: young people embracing religious extremism, engaging in terror activities, getting involved in drug and women trafficking and indulging in petty or heinous crime.

In all countries, the one section of the population that will face acute distress are old people. They will have to be provided with a comprehensive support system to cater to their health needs, their physical disabilities and their psychological concerns that arise out of a harrowing sense of solitude. The costs of such a support system will be more and more prohibitive. The fear therefore is that the elderly will become the outcasts of the emerging world. While they will not represent a force of disruption, their collective plight will not allow the conscience of the world to remain indifferent.

9. SOFT POWER

With or without government assistance, many nations are deploying their cultural assets to influence public opinion across the world. The traditional purveyors of culture - such as the American Cultural Centres, British Council, Alliance Francaise, Goethe, Cervantes, Confucius Institutes etc - are now being strengthened in several ways: TV news and entertainment channels with a world-wide foot-print, radio transmissions in local languages, creation of web-sites. These are meant to change perceptions about a country to enable it to facilitate the promotion of its diplomatic, strategic and commercial interests. The success or otherwise of these endeavours will be watched with much concern and interest, especially in countries that lack the necessary wherewithal to undertake them.

The global market, too, is creating spaces for various cultures to extend their reach. Witness, for example, the popularity of Asian films, classical and contemporary dance and music, literature, alternative health systems and, not least, cuisines. The popularity goes well beyond the confines of the Asian diaspora. Indian and Chinese cinema is all set to challenge the supremacy of Hollywood. Indian cricket and China's achievements in athletics command world-wide admiration.

These trends will become more salient in the years to come at the global level even as the politics of nations becomes more inward-looking. Within some countries, however, the trends could provoke a dangerous backlash. Bigoted religious groups have time and again gone on a rampage to curb the influence of 'alien' cultures. They burn books, ransack museums, disrupt concerts, ban film screenings through intimidation and even violence, shut down shops selling DVDs. The fate of soft power will continue to hang in the balance.

10. CONFLICT ZONES

The following conflicts will continue to be a source of grave concern to the international community in the foreseeable future. (a) between Israel and neighboring Muslim countries (b) between Shias and Sunnis in the Muslim world (c) between minority Muslim populations and the majority non-Muslim ones, especially in Russia, India, Burma, China, Thailand, Philippines and in some parts of Africa (d) between India and Pakistan over the Kashmir issue (e) between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea (f) between China and Japan over some islands in the East China Sea (g) between North and South Korea (h) between Sinhalas and Tamils in Sri Lanka (i) between Muslims and Christians in Nigeria.

Add to this secessionist movements that often spill across borders. These include, for example, the Baloch, Kurds, Chechens, Muslims in China's Sinkiang region, Kashmiris, certain groups in India's north-east and in southern Philippines. Most of them engage in terror activities. The arms they deploy get more and more sophisticated by the day. Should they - and jihadi groups - gain access to weapons of mass destruction, including the nuclear arsenal, the world's current strategic doctrines and practices would have to undergo a change not witnessed since nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

DISCONTENT ABOUNDS

My list is by no means comprehensive. It does not include, for example, issues of gender equality, the plight of children, refugees and the handicapped, fear of pandemics and cyber warfare. Nor does it discuss the impact of major breakthroughs in biology, bio-technology and genetics or the phenomenal rise of 'civil society' - witnessed during the Arab Spring - and the rapid growth of the Green and anti-corruption movements.

In many respects, the emergence of these movements testifies to a phenomenon observed world-wide, but especially in developing nations: the yawning gap between the 'hardware' of democracy - elected bodies, the judiciary, institutions of governance - and the 'software' of democracy - civic sense, tolerance of dissent, respect for law, transparent and accountable conduct of those in positions of power, authority and influence. Global trends could either narrow or widen that gap.

I wish to place on record my gratitude to Sundeep Waslekar, President of the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group, for his unfailing and enthusiastic guidance in the preparation of this document.