2018 stood out, for me, as a year where the world made big leaps in understanding development problems, and progress in science more broadly; while on many fronts we lost collective ability or commitment to address them. This seems the case particularly with respect to climate change and inequality, the two main development challenges for the coming year and decade. The following is a reflection of my end-of-year reading, of both the negatives and positives.
The publication on October 8th of the report of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was one of the most significant event of the year. It warned persuasively that the time to act to address climate change is running out fast, faster than expected, and far-reaching and unprecedented measures are essential. Global CO2 emissions were on the rise again in 2018.
The UN’s 24th annual conference on climate change in Poland in December illustrated the ambivalence in resolve to address the world’s biggest challenge. Administrations of the US, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Russia blocked a collective endorsement of the IPCC report – and US representatives even expressed praise for fossil fuels, arguing “no country should have to sacrifice their economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability”.
While there is a great deal of ambivalence in the commitment to address climate change, there are many positive signs, and knowledge that growth and sustainability do not need to form trade-offs. Most countries continue to support the Paris Accord. Cities around the world have committed to deliver on the Paris Agreement objective to hold the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius, through reducing transportation emissions, building energy efficiency, green energy, and changes in consumption patterns. And private sector CEOs have committed themselves to the Paris objectives, through for example an internal price on carbon, reducing energy use and switching to renewables.
News on inequality in 2018 was equally troubling. A report by the British House of Commons library showed that the in the ten years since the financial crisis of 2008, the income of the global 1% elite had increased by 6% per year, twice as fast as that of the remaining 99%. And it predicted that by current trends in 2030 the global 1% will hold almost two-thirds of all the world’s wealth.
The causes of these changes in inequality, and how economic and political inequalities intertwine continue to be debated. Globalisation is presented as the main cause of many populist leaders. Technological changes are an equally likely cause. In 2018 the role of owners of digital platforms and social media came under increased scrutiny. The impact of new technologies on employment, and potential for economic convergence remains highly uncertain.
This is not to say that not much progress was being made. Economic growth remains robust despite growing risks. Global poverty reduction continues, and measured by the Gini coefficient global inequality has actually been decreasing.
But the pace is very uneven. Global poverty is increasingly concentrated in Africa; Nigeria may soon have more poor people than India. Poverty is also increasingly concentrated in places that suffer from fragility, conflict, and violence, and social services including health systems continue to fail, resulting also in emergencies such as Ebola.
Although the number of refugees was lower in 2018 than in the previous years, there are still over 65 million refugees globally. Two-thirds of the refugees are displaced in their own countries, and – despite impressions created by some media – over 80% of refugees are hosted by countries in the Global South.
One of the more promising events of 2018 was the agreement, by 180 UN members opposed only by the US and Hungary, of the Global Compact on Refugees. This promises progress for refugee-hosting countries, the support of refugees’ self-reliance, and on access to ‘third countries’ through formal channels, and safe repatriation.
Gender equality continued to be high on the agenda of many thought leaders and activists. We witnessed significant progress, and widespread mobilisation for example at the end of 2018 in Kerala, India, to support access by women to the Sabarimala Temple, one of Hinduism’s holiest sites. But the road to gender equality is a long one: the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report highlighted that while gender gaps are closing it will take – for example – 60 years for gender gaps to close in Western Europe and 170 years in East Asia. New inequalities for example related new technologies are emerging, and labour market inequalities and segmentation continue to hold women back.
Political developments hampered the kind of progress needed to address climate change and high and rising inequalities. While global levels of democracy are still close to an all-time high, there have been disquieting trends in countries like Brazil, India, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and the United States – and hoped for democratic progress in for example China, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia has not materialised.
An inward-looking populism thrives on narrowly-defined socio-political identities, tending to restrict rights of minorities and migrants, and reduce the powers of redistributive policies. The populism is increasingly global, contributing to significant changes in political and economic alliances, as witnessed in global fora like the G20 (‘G19’), concerns about essential responses to growing economic risks, trade agreements, the UN etc.
Even a very selective narrative of recent trends as the above does not allow for simple priorities for a development research agenda in 2019 and beyond; what it does tell me though is that the challenges of political reversals, and growing risks of inequalities and climate change need to be addressed jointly.