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Six global trends to watch in 2020

Written by Sorcha O'Callaghan, Dirk Willem te Velde, Rebecca Nadin, Andrew Scott, Caroline Harper, Alina Rocha Menocal

2020 is the start of the Decade of Delivery for the Sustainable Development Goals. While these words may have little resonance for many, there is no doubt that issues of sustainable development impact us all.

The challenges of rich and poor throughout the world are in many ways intertwined – from climate change and technology to democratic deficits and global power shifts. Ironically, as the challenges we face as an international community grow closer, the divide between peoples appears to have deepened, with insular thinking and unprecedented pulls away from multilateralism.

But this is a new decade, not a new phenomenon. The world has constantly been changing. As the adage goes, the times change and we change with them. That has always been the spirit of ODI.

To mark the start of this Decade of Delivery, and our 60th anniversary year, six of our experts highlight key trends to watch out for in the year ahead.

Sorcha O'Callaghan: digital technology in humanitarian crises 

Following a decade-long drive towards digitalisation, 2020 will be marked by growing disquiet about digital technology's potential to harm, rather than help, people in crisis.

Since the 2010 Haiti earthquake, humanitarian actors have enthusiastically embraced digital technology for its promise to improve effectiveness at a time when humanitarian needs  vastly outstrip capacities.  

One of the factors driving the uptake of digital technology is an assumption that these tools give voice to affected communities, thereby tackling long-standing power asymmetries and forcing greater accountability upon aid actors. However, in a quest to engage, less attention has been paid to the risks.  

Protests in Cox's Bazaar, Bangladesh, in 2018 by Rohingya concerned about the registration of their biometric data, clearly illustrate these pitfalls. Following inadequate consultation, the strikers worried their data would be shared with Myanmar authorities and pave the way for forced return. Their biometric cards also failed to indicate their Rohingya identity, stoking fears their ethnicity was being erased. 

This event demonstrates how unchecked digitalisation could become an instrument of control which, in situations of conflict, place vulnerable groups at risk of exploitation, coercion, or violence. It also illustrates how digitalisation can undermine – rather than enhance – accountability when there is insufficient consent and engagement from communities. 

2020 must be the year that the magnitude of the risks  – as well as the potential – of technology for humanitarian action is better understood so that digitalisation in crisis doesn't become a crisis in itself. 

New research by ODI's Humanitarian Policy Group on the humanitarian "digital divide" will provide recommendations on how to deliver more effective and inclusive humanitarian action, both through better management of the risks and the opportunities associated with biometrics, social media, and mapping in crisis contexts.

Dirk Willem te Velde: economic transformation and innovation

2020 will continue to see an emphasis on economic transformation and innovation as without it there is no solution to the world’s challenges, from climate change to Africa’s debt problems.

As the environmental impact of business as usual becomes clearer, new ideas to change the pattern of growth will emerge. Some within the EU or at COP26 may support restricting trade by linking trade taxes to environmental footprint, for example. However, ultimately only economic transformation through trade, investment and innovations like renewable energy and better urbanisation can lead to a decoupling of emissions and growth.

In Africa, public debt built-up with the likes of China and international sovereign bonds has not sufficiently supported economic transformation. The IMF and others are stepping up efforts – the International Development Association’s 2019 $82 billion boost could make the World Bank more transformational and collaborative – but countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya must double down on industrialisation to transform their economies.

After its appellate body weakened in 2019, the World Trade Organization’s ministerial meeting in June could offer support to poor economies by restoring confidence in the global trade rule book. We anticipate more regional dynamism as the African Continental Free Trade Area becomes operational, but only if discussions accommodate trade laggards such as Nigeria or Tanzania, the 2020 African Union Chair South Africa, and regionalisation pushers like Morocco and Kenya.

Global growth is at its weakest since the global financial crisis, with China and India slowing to little over 5%. The increased likelihood of US-Iran aggression could also bring oil up to $80-100 barrel (Brent crude) and drag growth down further. Diversification and productivity remain challenges for low- and middle-income countries, as does digitalisation (2020 will be crucial for Cambodia in this regard). This will create new opportunities but also potential losers if action is not taken. Bangladesh and Nepal will also need to prepare for graduation from Least Developed Countries status later this decade.

Turning to the UK, restoring trust and developing new relationships post-Brexit will be a priority. The UK-Africa Investment Summit, a new UK-Africa Prosperity Commission, and the handover of the Commonwealth chair are all opportunities to do so. We can also expect to see a new aid agenda and autumn spending review, perhaps with pressure to update the UK’s International Development Act.

Rebecca Nadin: China's domestic agendas with global implications

2020 will be a benchmark year for China in terms of consolidating domestic agendas and further catalysing its evolving global strategy. Domestically, it will mark the official realisation of China’s first centenary goal – to eradicate poverty and ‘build a moderately prosperous society,’ as well as delivering on China’s commitment to the achievement of the UN’s first Sustainable Development Goal.

As China gears up for the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021, this year will undoubtedly see even more emphasis on ensuring national security and cohesion, with implications for a range of domestic stakeholders. 2020 will also see the finalisation of China’s 14th Five-Year Plan, whose direction will have huge implications for a range of polices including China’s ambitions on climate change, environmental protection, trade and both inward and outward investment.

On the international stage, we expect to see China turn its full attention towards its vision for reform of the current international economic order by becoming a norm regulator and/or setter, not just a norm taker. In parallel, China will also enhance the promotion of its approach to development, not only via the Belt and Road Initiative but through a range of international and regional institutions. These include the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, the Forum on China-African Cooperation, Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, and the New Development Bank, amongst others.

Andrew Scott: the climate crisis and prospects for COP26

The world’s youth were not alone in decrying the urgency of climate action in the tail end of 2019. According to the Emissions Gap report, we must reduce emissions by 7.6% every year for the next ten years to have a chance of averting irreversible – and potentially catastrophic – climate change.

But greenhouse gas emissions keep on rising. The Production gap report found that governments are currently planning to produce 120% more fossil fuels by 2030 than a safe global carbon budget would allow.

So, can we expect to see a halt in increasing emissions in 2020, or even a reduction? Probably not without a global economic downturn. And even if we do see a halt, it won’t be climate-related. Can we expect to see governments commit to deeper emission reductions than they have previously announced? Maybe – that’s what COP26 is supposed to deliver. But the UK Presidency will have its work cut out for it to signal the urgency and ambition that protestors, and increasingly businesses, are clamouring for.

However, there are some positive trends to note and build on in 2020. For example, the production and supply of fossil fuels is entering the climate policy debate. Non-state actors – local governments, corporations and financial institutions – are increasingly committing to take climate action. They may not be parties to the Paris Agreement, but their action is essential to reduce emissions. And finally, climate change is becoming a key concern of voters and central to domestic political debate.

Caroline Harper: gender equality – addressing the backlash  

2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the UN Beijing Platform for Action for gender equality. After notable progress in the second half of the 20th century, including reductions in maternal mortality and the growth of women’s representation in parliaments and as world leaders, many goals set in Beijing remain unfulfilled. Backsliding, disinterest, and outright lies by populist world leaders show that the threat to hard-won human rights cannot be underestimated. 

Globally, women face the sharp end of the climate crisis, with totally inadequate political commitment. Nationally, abuses of rights and escalating levels of violence continue. The repeal of a law protecting women against violence in Spain, backsliding of women’s rights in Turkey, abuse of a Rwandan presidential candidate, and a decline in parliamentary representation in Iceland sends notice that hard-won gains are not always set to last.

Lessons from the long struggle for equality illustrate that any successes require courage and persistence in pursuit of social justice, and that transforming discriminatory gender norms – by which we mean attitudes and behaviours embedded in institutions and individuals – is crucial for sustainable change.

In pursuit of equality and fair treatment women and girls were at the forefront of political protests in Sudan, Lebanon and Brazil, they ran for office in unprecedented numbers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the US, and emerged as young activists and leaders.

Looking forward, meaningful change, especially to norms, will also require stepped-up support from men, who are currently woefully absent, alongside the essential work of progressive social movements.

Despite set-backs, apparently insurmountable challenges, threats and even death, women and men continue to fight. But with knowledge of these consequences, why should we continue to hope?   

As author Rebecca Solnit wrote:

"Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky.  It is an axe to break down doors with in an emergency (…) to hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable."

As we approach 2020 and a new decade, we can take strength from those who have fought and won before us and move forward knowing that our hopeful commitment to the future is everything.

Alina Rocha Menocal: protesting in the digital age

The past decade was one of mass protest and social mobilisation, with people taking to the streets with an intensity and scope not seen since the 1960s. From Algeria to Zimbabwe, there has been an outpouring of anger against the failure, real or perceived, of mainstream politics to tackle challenges, ranging from inequality to climate change. 

Protests have been turbo-charged by innovations in information and communication technologies (ICTs) that have redefined how people interact with power and one another. This is particularly true of young people, who are increasingly involved in politics through social media rather than more traditional mechanisms like elections and political parties. Smart phones and the internet have become extraordinarily effective tools to connect and coordinate collective action in ways that was previously unimaginable. 

Yet, for all the enthusiasm about ICTs as “liberation technology,” we are also learning that while protesting in this digital age may be relatively easy, what comes after is much harder. Protests have been on the rise, but fewer of them achieve what they set out to accomplish. Indeed, what has made many of these protests compelling and effective – their diffuse, transient nature and flat, leaderless structure – may also turn out to be their Achilles’ heel.  

Fighting for inclusion, accountability, voice and influence entails sustained contestation and negotiation. Yet protest movements, frequently brought together through online networks on the basis of loose social/political ties, often lack the leadership and organisational capacity needed to bargain and compromise, and they may not be sustainable over time. Their spontaneous, unorganised, and virtual character also make it more difficult to agree on a strategy, build consensus and sustain pressure necessary to implement change. So while mass mobilisation may be the “new normal,” the struggle for progressive change remains as traditional as ever.