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World Economic Forum global trends 2015

Published:Sunday | June 14, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Martin Henry
In this May 28 photo, a teacher holds a poster that reads in Spanish ' Teachers underpaid by rude socialism' during a protest in Venezuela's Central University in Caracas, Venezuela. College professors in this socialist country plagued by a cash crunch, shortages and spiralling inflation are abandoning their jobs in droves, unable or unwilling to survive on salaries as minuscule as US$30 per month.

We entered the hurricane season on June 1 with most of the usual predictors forecasting a quiet season this year. The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the well-named NOAA, says it will be a quieter-than-normal season. And the famous hurricane centre at Colorado State University says it will be one of the least active seasons in decades.

But, as we all know from our rich experience with these monsters over the last several years, it is not the number of hurricanes but whether one of the fewer hits us and at what strength.

The predictions of a quieter 2015 Atlantic hurricane season notwithstanding, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has listed the increasing occurrence of severe weather events among its top 10 global trends for 2015. Every year, the Switzerland-based WEF taps into the knowledge, observations and experiences of its Global Agenda Council Members, asking them to identify the issues that they believe will have the biggest impact on the world over the coming 12 to 18 months. The resulting insights, gathered with the help of the Survey on the Global Agenda, produces the Top 10 Trends - a forecast of the social, economic and political flashpoints for the whole planet.


unprecedented devastation

Severe-weather events made headlines across the world last year, causing unprecedented devastation. Every continent has been affected, the WEF notes, from one of the world's strongest storms hitting the Philippines and the widest tornado ever seen in the United States, to extreme droughts gripping central Africa, Brazil and Australia and a series of massive floods in Pakistan.

What are the other trends that have brought us to what the World Economic Forum ominously describes as "a critical fork in the road, a period of decision that will dictate the health and viability of our civilisation for decades to come"?

Heading the list is something I have raised in an earlier column: Deepening income inequality. "In developed and developing countries alike, the poorest half of the population often controls less than 10% of its wealth." The top 1% of the population receives 25 per cent of the income in the United States. In the last 25 years, the average income of the top 0.1% has grown 20 times compared to the average.

"The inherent dangers of neglecting inequality are obvious," the WEF says. "People, especially young people, excluded from the mainstream end up feeling disenfranchised and become easy fodder of conflict. This, in turn, reduces the sustainability of economic growth, weakens social cohesion and security, encourages inequitable access to and use of global commons, undermines our democracies, and cripples our hopes for sustainable development and peaceful societies."

The other threatening trends are: persistent jobless growth, lack of leadership, rising geostrategic competition, weakening of representative democracy, rising pollution in the developing world, intensifying nationalism, increasing water stress, and growing importance of health in the economy.

Sounds like a world in serious trouble.

On jobless growth, Larry Summers, now Harvard economics professor and secretary of the treasury at one point in the Clinton administration, writes: "If we look at the data on workers aged 25 to 54 - the group we think of as a backbone of the workforce - the percentage of those who are not working has risen by a factor of more than three over the course of my lifetime, and that trend seems inexorably upward. If current trends continue, it could well be that a generation from now a quarter of the middle-aged demographic will be out of work at any given moment."

"Even China," Summers says, "which has enjoyed unprecedented growth in competitiveness and exports, has seen manufacturing employment decline over the last 20 years, thanks to its rapid industrialisation and use of technology and automation. This is a long-term trend and we are likely to observe these phenomena across the world, even among emerging economies as they travel the well-trodden path of industrialisation.

"The robotics and 3D printing revolutions could accelerate this trend still further, as the comparatively low-entry cost for these disruptive technologies makes them widely accessible to everyone, including developing economies."


Leadership crisis and unemployment problems

For the Latin American region, to which we are nominally attached for these global things, 79 per cent of respondents to the survey question, "how great a problem does the lack of employment opportunities pose in your country?" responded, "very big problem". Another 14 per cent said it was a "moderately big problem". Only sub-Saharan Africa had worse scores; but "the very big problem" response exceeded 50 per cent everywhere.

Among respondents to the WEF survey on the Global Agenda, 86 per cent believe that there is a leadership crisis in the world today. Driving this feeling is the failure of government to solve national and international problems which are hurting people's lives. People are deeply concerned about state corruption.

Intensifying competition between major states like the United States and China, tensions between Russia and the West with Ukraine as flashpoint, and the breakdown of governance in states like Iraq and Syria are raising global concerns over rising geostrategic competition.

Protests by citizens around the world underscore a weakening of representative democracy as well as a mass disaffection with government.

In the last two years, citizen protest has dominated the headlines in many countries around the globe, the WEF notes. Greece and Spain have seen unrest in the aftermath of the Eurozone crisis. Ukrainians occupied central Kiev and overthrew their government. Few nations from North Africa to the Middle East remain unaffected by the fallout from the Arab Spring, as citizens of the digital age grow ever more confident to mobilise in the face of a democratic deficit. Brazil experienced a major upheaval as people protested against income disparity and public spending on the World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

The industrialisation of the developing world is creating unsustainable pollution levels, the WEF notes with alarm as one of the 10 trends identified.

And the world is witnessing dangerously rising nationalism, and ethnic and religious conflict.

On an island of wood and water, despite our own domestic water woes caused mostly by catchment and distribution problems, it may be difficult to grasp that billions of fellow planetary citizens are facing increasing water stress raising tensions between states and within states. And as water stress increases across the world, there will be political consequences from the fight for a scarce and precious resource.

In more developed countries, ageing populations create a massive burden on non-communicable diseases on health services. Infectious diseases are rebounding. New diseases are emerging at an alarming rate. Last year, Ebola ravaged parts of West Africa. And we in the Caribbean had to deal with a chikungunya epidemic. The World Bank estimates that 50 per cent of the economic growth differentials between developing and developed nations are attributed to poor health and low life expectancy in the developing countries.

The World Economic Forum, committed as it is to improve the state of the world, optimistically believes that public-private cooperation can fix the world's problems. But as the Forum admits "to address these issues, the world needs a level of global cooperation that is increasingly difficult to attain, precisely due to the growing complexities and interdependencies in the world".

- Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and medhen@gmail.com.