The recently released National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2040 The report, lasting over 140 pages, is entitled “A more contested world”. This title should come as no surprise to development professionals. The report, reviewed by new Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, before being sent to President Biden and Congress, examines key trends that will likely influence U.S. national security through 2040. I blogged on the Global Trends Report in 2015, when it was set to be unveiled at the Splashing South-by-Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin. This year’s public release was much more low-key and the overall outlook decidedly more dark, chaotic and turbulent, not only the lingering fallout from a ‘long tail’ COVID-19 pandemic, but the worrying environmental consequences of climate change on everything from glacier and sea level rise, more frequent and intense tropical storms, and an unprecedented number of Forest fires, like those observed last year in the western United States. The NIC report also talks about the disturbing societal changes to come, characterized by a growing gap between what governments can reliably deliver and what citizens can reasonably expect.
The report identifies four trends or “structural forces” at work – demographic, economic, environmental and technological – that will anchor almost everything else in its forecast. These factors were selected because they are central to the assessment of any future world and because the projections for these forces are based on historical data. This in turn means that we can have a reasonable degree of confidence in how they will play out over time. After describing these structural forces and examining their longer-term trajectories, the report takes a more dynamic look at how they interact with other ‘factors’ to influence individuals, society, states, and the international system in the world. wider. The level of uncertainty begins to increase for this second section of the report, as you would expect, as projections and their complex interactions are less reliant on historical data and more conditioned on the interplay of speculative human factors and choices. .
Throughout the report, the authors focus on four themes that are at play and feed off each other. The first one, shared global challenges, includes the pervasive threats of climate change, the spread of disease, sudden and acute financial crises, and inevitable technological disruption. If left unchecked, these threats can accelerate existing food and water insecurity in poor countries, lead to increased migration, undermine health care and accelerate biodiversity loss. New technologies will almost certainly disrupt jobs, reconfigure the workplace and challenge traditional means of income generation.
The second recurring theme is fragmentation in which increased connectivity leads to greater dependence which can backfire on society and effectively divide and fragment people into like-minded silos and rally citizens around national, cultural or political poles. Imbalance, the third theme, refers to the natural collision of the first two themes in which existing systems and structures begin to falter, crumble and ultimately fail, traditional rules and norms are upset, and people scramble to build a new order.
All this leads to the fourth theme, challenge, best viewed as a constant ebb and flow of disputes, arguments and quarrels within communities and states with the resulting fractures. On the international stage, contestation leads to unhealthy competition, unprecedented geopolitical tensions, and states and countries advancing without rules to exploit the advantages and fill the voids.
The final and perhaps most revealing theme revolves around adaptation, in which countries and societies thrive or decline based on their ability to adjust, change, reorganize or reshape their strategies and approaches in everything from climate, migration and employment to trade flows and technological innovations . How countries adapt to underlying demographic changes, such as the “big bulge” in major developed countries, can seriously hold back economic growth without creative and widely adopted innovations like AI. than the United States just reported its birth rate fell for the sixth consecutive year in 2020, and just released data showing that the Chinese population has grown at its own pace slowest rate since the 1950s, may be a harbinger of what is to come. How countries cope with the growing concentration of their citizens in cities and to what extent, in turn, these cities can provide essential services will be a key to adaptation. For Asia, I blogged about these urban challenges in 2015, noting that proactive efforts to tackle urbanization were scarce then. Adaptation overall, according to the report, will be most effective in countries that build and maintain trust between the public and private sectors.
The final section of the report ends with five scenarios or vignettes on how these strengths, the factors that motivate them, and recurring themes are likely to unfold through 2040. Not surprisingly, three of the scenarios revolve around US competition. -Chinese in the years to come, namely, the “Renaissance of Democracies”, “A Drifting World” and “Competitive Coexistence”. For those new to script generation, eye-catching titles are a key requirement that allows the reader to go beyond the data to see a distinct picture with no overlap from one storyline to another. The two remaining scenarios, neither related to how China and the United States grapple with looming global issues, are called “Separate Silos” and “Tragedy and Mobilization”. These scenarios stem from a series of what the report calls global discontinuities that cause the United States and China to focus most of their energies on other pressing issues like the disintegration of global supply chains … and not on their ongoing rivalries. in itself.
Five consequences on development:
There are five consequences to which development actors should be particularly attentive:
- Peak progress: Many of the hard-won gains over the past two decades to boost economic growth and prosperity, improve quality of life, and support democratic processes for people in the developing world are in jeopardy.
- Changing demographics: World population growth is slowing as the world begins to age. Regional differences in growth, economic disparities and the disputes and conflicts they engender, including mass migration, will be more pronounced and will require more targeted aid approaches.
- Environmental reduction: Climate change and the degradation that will result from it will fall squarely on the backs of developing countries, creating greater hardship, undermining or even nullifying economic gains, and creating new development challenges while making old ones more acute.
- Weakened institutions: Confidence in institutions, from governments to civil society organizations, will weaken, skepticism growing about the ability of institutions to meet urgent needs, and the consensus for collective action will dry up. This “trust gap” is accentuated by disinformation campaigns, increased control of the media and citizens who flock to associate only with like-minded ethnic, religious and cultural groups. These societal trends are likely to fuel a rise in nationalist sentiment, undermining political human rights, the rule of law and democratic institutions.
- Relentless competition: The rivalry between China and the United States continues to increase as global international standards plunge, multilateral institutions lose their grip as cooperation wanes, stronger regional actors emerge, and non-state actors gain influence. China will continue to expand its international influence and offer an alternative vision for a new international order. In this growing global uncertainty and in an era of competition for dominant powers, increased conflict and volatility are likely to be byproducts that will undermine civic stability and pose risks to democracy.
As 2040 is a few years away, development agencies and their partners, as well as multilateral institutions and governments, are not sitting idly by. President Biden recently held a Meet of 40 world leaders to rally them to redouble their efforts to avoid a worsening of the climate crisis. the world Bank just pledged a 35% increase in climate finance over the next five years to further address this challenge. With regard to building and maintaining institutional trust, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation explores new paradigms to improve how governments improve their responsiveness to citizen needs in order to further strengthen fragile democracies. And, using horizon scanning techniques, UNDP examines emerging governance approaches to better understand the challenges ahead and how countries can recalibrate their efforts to build more lasting trust. Other global challenges outlined in the NIC report, such as emerging disruptive technologies, growing rivalry between China and the United States, and mass migration, will require a major overhaul of current development approaches. Certainly, these evaluations are already underway.
Steve gale is Senior Foresight Advisor at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning. He is the representative of the United States and the 2021 co-chair with Switzerland of the Friends of Foresight OECD / DAC community of practice. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of USAID or the United States government.
Sources: Axios, Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, NASA, New Security Beat, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Reuters, The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The New York Times, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, The Washington Post, The White House, World Bank, United Nations Development Program.
Photo credit: Cover of Global trends 2040: a more contested world, courtesy of the National Intelligence Council.