What Did 2016 Bring?

Nationalism is another global trend that raised its head during the year where people were in serious search of their national identity and their historical rights viewed against the influx of foreigners who were “taking away” jobs that were rightfully belonging to the former.


by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( December 29, 2016, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Most of the commentaries one hears about retrospective looks at 2016 consist of what we have heard over and over: populism has been the trend the world over – Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory; The vote by Italians who rejected a referendum which precipitated the exit of the Prime Minister (the reason for which is wrongly attributed to populism whereas the referendum was perceived by the Italian public as restricting democracy and the democratic institution); the ongoing misery in Syria; Iraq, Libya Yemen and some African States bringing about a refugee crisis not seen since world war 2; and sporadic terror attacks in Europe. Not much is said about the reasons for these trends and occurrences.

Populism grew because of rising inequality which has been identified as the defining feature of our times. This exponential rise in inequality has in turn been attributed to two decades of failed liberal governance where western governments have been boosting the markets instead of developing and pumping money into economies. Italy’s crisis was purely a result of the rejection of perceived concentration of power in one individual. The misery in Syria and other places mentioned was because of ineptitude of the West in not nipping off in the bud the autocracy of certain villainous dictators. No doubt the refugee crisis is a corollary of this feckless insouciance. Sporadic terror attacks in Europe were the result of a combination of bad intelligence gathering, inadequate anticipatory intelligence and the displacement of terrorism to soft targets.

Nationalism is another global trend that raised its head during the year where people were in serious search of their national identity and their historical rights viewed against the influx of foreigners who were “taking away” jobs that were rightfully belonging to the former.

The above notwithstanding, hyper-connectivity was the most pervasive agent of change in 2016. The year personified the changing nature of power from the world of big government and commerce to the individual, where individual empowerment was a key driver. This was brought about by a technology revolution which relentlessly bombarded the 12 months of 2016, making education the key factor that kept on increasing the numbers of the middle class. Corollaries of this trend made artificial intelligence (AI) boom with such innovations as Google’s DeepMind and Tesla’s self-driving and self navigating cars. If DeepMind could beat any human being at Go (a more complicated game than Chess) one could wonder how AI could recommend better procedures for surgeries than human medical specialist and technologists can ever concoct with their collective minds. IBM’s Watson (a super computer which could read millions of academic articles in a few minutes and synthesize solutions) came into the limelight in 2016, bringing to bear the immense possibilities that technology would offer in the future.

There were also signs of decreasing inequality in emerging markets coupled with increasing mobility. Big data analysis took a huge leap forward in 2016, an example being applications such as “hopper” which gives the air traveller the best air fares to reach his destination through a search of 3 billion airfare combinations. However, a Global Economic Forum (GEF) study released in mid 2016 pointed out that individuals are beginning to lose trust in how governments are handling meta data which was seemingly a threat to their privacy rights. The solution put forward by the GEF is to set up “living labs” to test potential new regulations for rights and responsibilities of the individual. This solution portends a dilemma for China as a Rand study pointed out that a dichotomy exists where China’s future development depends on global internet connectivity which in turn is stymied by China’s own circumscription of the internet. Meanwhile, a McKenzie Study reported that the internet would increase in real GDP per capita of $ 500 on average in the next 15 years.

2016 also saw massive improvements in medicine, guaranteeing better health and extended longevity. Jobs created in 2016 outnumbered those destroyed and “digitization” – the mass adoption of connected digital services by consumers, enterprises and governments – provided billions of dollars to boost world economic output. Greater independence of the individual resulted through globalization. There were also emergent game changes for the future: the growing possibility of war (particularly regionally); new technologies; and the ambiguity presented by global politics that wavered from left to right.

Global environmental protection took a more optimistic turn with the Paris Agreement – an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gases emissions mitigation, adaptation and finance starting in the year 2020. The language of the agreement was negotiated by representatives of 195 countries at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC in Paris and adopted by consensus on 12 December 2015. It was opened for signature on 22 April 2016 (Earth Day) in a ceremony in New York City. This Agreement, which came into effect in 2016 sought to limit the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius and to proceed toward limiting that increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. On 5 October 2016, the threshold for entry into force of the Paris Agreement was achieved. The Paris Agreement entered into force on 4 November 2016. The first session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Paris Agreement (CMA 1) took place in Marrakech, Morocco from 15-18 November 2016.

Finally, a political “bombshell” was dropped in the United Nations Security Council on 23 December where the Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 relating to Israeli settlements in “Palestinian territories occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem”. The Resolution, which was passed with the support of 14 of the 15 members of the Council with the United States – which has veto power – abstaining, states that Israel′s settlement activity constitutes a “flagrant violation” of international law and has “no legal validity”, and demands that Israel stop such activity and fulfill its obligation as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel responded to this condemnation by blaming the United States for failing to block the Council resolution, among other more serious allegations to the effect that the Resolution was orchestrated by the United States.

Although the Resolution is non-binding and does not have an immediate compelling effect on Israel, it leaves a strong flavor of political discord among two allies. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said: “friends do not take friends to the Security Council”. It is a fact that legal validity cannot be ascribed to UN Resolutions as they are merely the result of political compromises and arrangements. However, this leads up to an inauspicious and tense start to 2017. As the age old Chinese curse says: “may you live in interesting times”. Viewed in this context 2017 might well be “interesting”.

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