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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Global trends and Bangladesh

The world is going through fundamental changes and the global scene is in transition. The trends that we see today in the global scene are obvious and will drastically reshape and transform the world we know today. It is always difficult to make strategic predictions and it may be impossible to completely envision a new world but trends can be seen to be analysed both in global context and as it applies to us in Bangladesh. Unless we keep a track of the rapid and vast geopolitical shifts and changes that are taking place we could very easily be overwhelmed as and when they occur.

The recently published report of the US National Intelligence Council titled 'Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds' has carried out a deep strategic horizon scanning and analysed the findings to come up with a set of mega trends we will experience. The trends however exist today in some form but will gain further momentum in the coming years to influence and shape the strategic landscape.

The first of these mega trends is Individual Empowerment, which will further accelerate in the coming years to become the major engine of change. The rise of the vast global middle-class with better education will cause a tectonic shift in the structure of society and state. The state and the classical power elite groups will lose their monopoly over state power to individuals and networks of individuals. This power shift will have both positive and negative impacts, we will see more innovative individual efforts in solving longstanding global challenges and at the same time individuals and small groups will have greater access to lethal and disruptive technologies like cyber instruments and bio-terror weaponry, enabling them for large scale violence -- which was the sole monopoly of the state.

The second mega trend will be the Diffusion of Power. This diffusion will be seen at all levels -- starting from the state to the global power structure. As the centre of gravity of global power shifts to Asia we will also see the emergence of new powers, in addition to China, India and Brazil, regional powers like Colombia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey will exert more power and influence on the international system. It will usher in a new kind of multi polarity which will be a multi-multi polar world. The shift in national power will also experience a fundamental shift in the nature of power itself. Modern communication technology will bring about multifaceted and multilayered groups and networks that will exert their influence on the state and the international system.

The third mega trend will be the rapidly changing nature of Demographic Landscape. The growing world population will reach around nine billion by next twenty years. The nature of the demographic patterns will be different in different geographic regions of the world and will also determine the economic potentials and political state of these states and regions. Much of the western and developed world will have a declining population growth trend and therefore experience rapid aging while the developing world will continue to have fast population growth with a youth bulge where a significant portion of the country will be under 35 years of age. The pull and push factor of this very different demographic trend in the north and south may result in large scale trans-boundary and transcontinental migration. Most countries, particularly in the developing world, will go through rapid urbanisation which could be very chaotic at times. It will be an uphill struggle for the developing world to meet the needs of this fast growing population and satisfy their rising expectation.

The fourth, and a significant, mega trend will be the growing nexus of Food, Water and Energy Security. Due to the rapid increase of the global population and the demands of increased consumption styles of the bulging middle class the demands for these critical resources will grossly outpace the supply (demand will grow by 35%, 40% and 50% for food, water and energy respectively).

The situation of these unsustainable conditions will be further aggravated by impacts of climate change. As water availability declines, a large portion of the global population will become vulnerable to water stress both from the quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Lack of access to clean and safe water will also bring about challenges to human health. Increasing demand for food caused by increasing population and calorie intake will put new pressures on food supply. As supply of water for irrigation becomes short in supply and more cultivable land is lost to new climate conditions like saline intrusion or a rising sea level, food production will continue to decrease in many parts of the world. The numbers of food insecure people will increase in large numbers bringing the possibility of social disorder or conflict.

The supply of traditional sources of energy will continue to decrease while the demand will rapidly rise. Specially, energy thirsty fast growing economies of China, India, Brazil, etc. will put additional pressure on energy stability of the world. Energy is central to many of our economic growth activities and production; it will therefore impact severely on various sectors. We are destined to live in a world of significant resource scarcity unless we become more innovative in sourcing and adapt to new ways of living. The world may truly be a different place in the next 15-20 years.

In an interconnected world such mega trends will certainly have global influence. It is therefore important to analyse these trends to predict how much influence it will have on Bangladesh over the next two decades. Bangladesh has seen vast empowerment of different sections of society, and especially of rural woman. As education and literacy rate continues to climb there is also an increase in the ranks of a new middle class. This new class of empowered people will find their rightful place in society and demand more accountability from its leaders. There will be greater disenchantment with the current state of "politics as usual" and there will be greater demand for delivery by the state. Empowered by the Internet these people will call for more transparency in governance and try to put an end to the culture of looting the state. The state will also lose its monopoly over information and there by its ability to manipulate the information space.

The centrality of power at different cores from the capital, family, socio-political elite, etc will come under severe challenge. The only way for these groups to remain relevant to the system will be accept a logical diffusion of power. If they fail to see the change they could be swept away by a new breed of citizens (or netizens). Powered by the net and social media these citizens will form various networks to voice their aspirations or protests and bring pressure on the state (the recent example of millions of missed calls on a cellular network is a case in example).

A major impact in the country will come from the rapid demographic expansion and a youth bulge that the country will experience. If it is not managed well then it can explode in many forms. In fact, the NIC report lists Bangladesh among the top 15 countries at high risk of state failure due to poor human ecology and resilience. The country faces grave challenges from the nexus of food, water and energy. Food production will decline in the coming years due to the impacts of climate change and will be unable to meet the ever growing demands of upward demographic graph. Water shortages will increase in a more climate change induced scenario. A large part of the coastal area of the country will be lost to the rising sea creating millions of climate refugees. We will be energy insecure unless we are able to find sustainable sources of energy and invest in green energy.

However all is not gloom for Bangladesh in the future as it is also considered a potential emerging country by many. But it is critically important for our leaders and us to clearly identify the challenges that lie ahead of us, and to analyse them with objectivity so that we can adopt the right strategies to overcome them. We should remember the words of caution from John Maynard Keynes (1937), "... the idea of the future being different from the present is so repugnant to our conventional modes of thought and behaviour that we, most of us, offer great resistance to acting on it in practice."

The writer is President, Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security Studies (BIPSS) and Chairman, Global Military Advisory Council (GMAC) on Climate Change and Security.


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