Since the global financial crisis five years ago, it has become increasingly commonplace to emphasize the interconnectedness of the modern world. Events in one part of the world can unleash consequences in distant places. But when it comes to identifying potential solutions to the world’s greatest challenges, leaders and policy-makers are still too often locked in an old world, one-dimensional mindset. Some of the answers may well lie in areas which, at first glance, seem unrelated to the issue at hand.
Take the turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa, identified in the World Economic Forum’s Outlook on the Global Agenda 2014 as the most significant challenge facing world leaders. The debate on the region has largely focused on the ethnic, religious and political rifts which gave rise to the civil ferment, and the benefits and drawbacks of regime change. But how much attention has been paid, for example, to the role of changing weather patterns in the current strife?
It is perhaps no surprise that inaction on climate change also featured as the 5th on the list of Top 10 trends drawn up by the Forum’s experts representing business, government, academia and civil society. However, the real value of this list cannot be derived by viewing each significant trend in isolation, but by seeking to locate the crossover between humanity’s most pressing problems, with a view to finding new and innovative ways of solving them.
In the five years before the civil war erupted in Syria, a large proportion of its land was subject to a devastating long-term drought. Many agricultural workers lost their livelihoods and were thrown into extreme poverty. In total, more than 1 million people were displaced from their homes, pouring into urban areas that were already experiencing economic hardship.
Might climactic conditions have contributed to the profound unrest that set off a conflict estimated to have claimed more than 100,000 lives so far? Might the issue of climate change, therefore, have to be considered as an intrinsic element in the proposed political and economic remedies for the region’s ills?
The Edward Snowden affair has highlighted the impact of cyber threats, which ranks No 4 on the trend list. With specific regard to the Middle East, his revelations have no doubt set back the cause of those who wish for the emergence of Western-style liberal democracy in the region. John Sawers, the head of the British foreign intelligence service MI6, said recently: “Our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee; Al Qaeda is lapping it up.” More generally, the leaks about widespread espionage are also likely to have reinforced the widely held view in the region that the West is hypocritical and duplicitous.
Despite a lapse of several years since the peak of the financial crisis, economic challenges dominate the Top 10 trends, demonstrating that much damage still needs to be repaired. Widening income gaps (No 2), persistent structural unemployment (No 3) and diminishing confidence in economic policies (No 6) are all on the list.
Again, we can see the connections between trends. The growth of megacities worldwide (no 9) is an opportunity that will require a coherent approach for city planners, integrating economic, social and environmental policies to ensure urban centres continue flourishing. The rapid spread of misinformation online (no 10) is a phenomenon of our new online, digitally connected culture which we don’t yet fully understand.
A lack of values in leadership (No 7) perhaps goes some way to explain the lack of popular faith in governments’ economic direction. If people believe that politicians are interested in serving only their own interests, they are unlikely to trust governments to devise and implement the actions to combat economic problems. The expanding middle class in Asia (no 8) may have a surprising effect on political systems and their leaders, which may find themselves challenged by better educated, empowered and more demanding citizenry.
Without the legitimacy that a basic trust confers, leaders in a democratic environment cannot hope to carry through the far-reaching and sometimes painful changes necessary to eradicate deep social and economic problems. Essential reforms will be vulnerable to constant, abrupt reversals as a result of electoral or popular pressure from a sceptical public, and will never reach completion. The drive to improve leadership values should surely form an indispensable feature of workable and responsible economic policy.
Indeed, recent history provides us with several examples of the significance of democratic legitimacy for governments seeking to bring about long-term change. Without figurehead leaders such as Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in the Czech Republic, the enormous transition from Communism to free market societies in Eastern Europe may well have been far bumpier. The credibility of these men who, like another great transitional leader, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, were untainted by the former regimes, gave people the faith in leadership they needed to support bold reforms.
Although the global economy is recovering, there is a great amount of work still to be done to return the world to a sustainable footing, economically, politically and environmentally. Of all the Top 10 trends, inaction on climate change ranked the highest as the least effectively addressed. In addition, according to Forum data, media and business need to pay much more attention to the widening income disparities and the lack of values in leadership.
As these findings highlight, we cannot be complacent, but must find solutions which address their multifaceted, underlying causes. To formulate effective responses, leaders and policy-makers must not think in straight lines, but map key connections between trends. It is within these largely unexplored intersections that new and innovative ideas may well reside. This is why we gather the world’s most relevant leading thinkers in Abu Dhabi next week to discuss new ideas and develop concrete recommendations which can shape a better future.
Read a blog on the top 10 trends facing the world in 2014.
Author: Martina Gmür is Head of the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils. The Councils’ annual meeting, the Summit on the Global Agenda, takes place in Abu Dhabi on 18-20 November.
Image: A refugee girl from Syria peeps through a tent at a refugee camp near the port-city of Sidon, southern Lebanon October 8, 2013. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho