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Forecast of global trends suggest heavy headwinds for Africa

Africa contributes the least of any continent to climate change – but it also has the least resources to manage it. Shutterstock

The US National Intelligence Council is preparing a new quadrennial edition of Global Trends, looking ahead 20 years.

The report informs the strategic thinking and planning of America’s next president-elect.

Global Trends is intended to inform US leaders. But it can be a useful reference for other countries too. This is especially so in Africa, where the financial and institutional capacity for long-term comprehensive research and analysis is lacking.

The public document can be critically assessed in terms of local interests. It is based on input from scholars, journalists, business, labour and civil society leaders in more than 35 countries, including China and Russia.

The 2012 mega-trends, and a subsequent shortlist recently offered by the council’s chair Greg Treverton, are already evident across Africa. His preliminary views about which mega-trends will feature in the 2016 edition suggest Africa faces some tough headwinds.

Previous forecasts

The previous edition was prepared for Barack Obama after his re-election in 2012. It highlighted four “mega-trends”.

  • The first was an increase in individual empowerment. This would come about due to a decline in poverty, a rise in the middle class and more widely available information and communication technologies.

  • Second was a further diffusion of power among and within countries as emerging markets expand and rich countries age and growth slows.

  • Third were demographic changes brought about by urbanisation, forced migration, youth bulges and longer life expectancies.

  • Finally, it discussed severe strains on existing resources, access to food, energy and water as populations grow and consumption increases.

The trends evident across Africa include rapid urbanisation, the world’s fastest-growing population – including a large unemployed youth bulge – and migration. All are straining already scarce resources of food, energy and water.

Less obvious, but also of concern to Africa, are the trends toward individual empowerment in the north and newly affluent countries. There is also the trend of further diffusion of power within and among countries. These exacerbate partisanship, protectionism and exclusive patriotism, especially in the most powerful and prosperous countries.

The detrimental effects on African countries are likely to be further exacerbated by opposition to two important problems: overdue reform of multilateral institutions, and greater collective action to overcome widening inequities.

What’s next

Treverton’s recent shortlist of immediate concerns includes several that were overlooked four years ago. They include:

  • China’s economic slowdown and restructuring;

  • Russian assertiveness under Vladimir Putin’s popular, authoritarian and unpredictable leadership;

  • the collapse of commodity prices. This will contribute to sudden, perhaps dangerous, reversals in growth in emerging markets, notably Brazil and South Africa;

  • deadly twists in the Middle East turmoil and the outpouring of refugees; and

  • political uncertainties in the US affecting its global role.

Treverton notes that the council could not address the issue of America’s global role. Nevertheless, it is an implicit reminder of the 2016 election’s global importance.

Treverton expects that, as in 2012, individual empowerment will lead the 2016 list. This will fuel demands for more accountability. It will also be accompanied by acts of violence and criminal behaviour.

The 2016 list is also expected to discuss slower growth, with more strains on scarce resources, coping with the effects of climate change, and rising inequality. It will also include mention of intensifying competition and conflict over values that lie at the heart of demands for greater freedom and equality.

There will also be mention of technological breakthroughs. This will be most notable in areas of artificial intelligence and biotechnology. Treverton compared these to information technology breakthroughs 25 years ago.

Finally, the list is expected to discuss the greater difficulties in achieving collective action among countries as a result of the other four trends.

“African solutions for African problems” remains a vital aspiration among elites eager to purge all remnants of colonialism. This includes practical, political and psychological. But Africa will continue to depend on economic growth in more prosperous regions to sustain commodity exports and fuel diversification and development.

Current trends and the likely revisions to in the 2016 list point to even less likelihood that the 2012 “most plausible positive outcome” in global scenario, Fusion, will predominate. This will further hurt Africa’s development prospects.

Climate change is fast becoming a human survival issue in Africa. It is the region least responsible for global warming. But it also has the fewest surplus resources to deal with its effects.

In addition, most people still depend on subsistence agriculture. A new report from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine links extreme weather and resulting humanitarian disasters to climate change.

Another study shows that southern Africa will experience global warming twice as hot as the global mean. This is likely to lead to famine, forced migration, and risks of deadly new pandemics as humans and animals congest and viruses spread. None will remain local problems.

Whatever scenarios actually happen, acquiring a better understanding of global trends and their local effects must become a top priority for all universities. This must take the form of interdisciplinary and problem-focused research and analysis to inform contingency planning and priorities.

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