The monkey is known to be a “smart, frank, optimistic and ambitious” creature. As 2016 marks the Chinese Year of the monkey (officially starting on February 8th 2016, as per the Chinese Lunar Calendar) it seems like a suitable time to revisit the pictorial Japanese proverb of the “three monkeys”. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” – a maxim aptly fit to consider the future we face.
Determined to see no evil
In 2015, world leaders decided to acknowledge the pressing problems we face today. The post-2015 development agenda marks a radical change in the global mindset to challenges like reducing inequality, ensuring sustainable urban and natural environments and fostering innovative consumption and production. In 2016, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 goals comprising of 169 targets to be achieved by 2030, will come into force. The UN has given itself the deadline of March 2016 to decide how it will measure their progress. Many pundits view it as another political talk show, yielding little results. But the success of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in areas such as reducing poverty – the number of people living on less than US$1.25 a day has been reduced from 1.9 billion as per 1990 levels to 836 million in 2015 (narrowly missing the target)– demonstrates the potential for success. Moreover, certain countries like Bangladesh have successfully met several goals like achieving gender parity in primary and secondary education and reducing child mortality, championed as a model example for the “sleeping tiger” next door, India, which boasts a higher GDP per capita.
Critics contend the success of Goal One is largely due to China’s rapid economic growth, nearly impossible to emulate unless another economic miracle occurs. Yet, the refocus on the “bottom billion”, with reducing inequality and emancipating social mobility being the jargon of the day, demonstrates a rekindled commitment to run the extra mile. Modi’s commitment to bring private banking to the poor, with 190 million bank accounts opened since August 2014 and the pending take-off of Indian mobile banking, highlight a revitalised movement to empower the poor through access to finance. Moreover, policies such as China’s commitment to quadruple its previous solar energy production target to 150 – 200 gigawatts demonstrate the holistic approach to development with access to sustainable energy (SDG Goal Seven) being high on the agenda.
2016 will see a turning of tables. According to an Oxfam report, in 2016, for the first time the richest 1% will own more than the rest. Nonetheless, this will not go unnoticed. The inequality debate has progressed on various levels. 2016 will see better measurement of inequality, with initiatives like Just Capital’s Just Index, designed to measure sustainable investment by the world’s top companies, made publicly accessible this year. Inequality and social mobility will be at the heart of political and economic change ranging from the US Presidential elections to the World Economic Forum where the world’s top business and financial leaders declared “deepening income inequality” as number one in their top ten trends to watch in 2015.
From economic to environmental progress, 2016 will be a year of positive change. As the international community heralded the COP21 agreement as a success, countries now need to meet their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Despite the challenges that I outlined in my article in July 2015, from the Breakthrough Energy Coalition of high-net worth individuals to China and India’s commitment to renewables, there is much to be optimistic about. Climate change denial is a thing of the past as causes like divestment (discussed by Arun Veerapan), green bonds, and economic diversification of giants like Saudi Arabia are embedded in mainstream discussion. Companies like Volkswagen are publicly defamed for breaching environmental standards, as consumers are increasing demanding ethical business. Successes will range from the macro to micro level. Catalysts for change like weather-based insurance schemes, improving farmers’ climate change resilience while boosting their incomes, will act as a microcosm of “seeing no evil” in 2016.
Hear no evil
Despite potential successes – 2016 will also be a time for careful consideration. The rise of nationalism from Donald Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the USA (considered in Tom Wheeldon’s article) to Marine Le Pen’s inward looking anti – EU agenda in France – voters will have to make well-informed decisions based on the rhetoric they hear. Populist promises will be fuelled by the growing tide of immigration, rise of jihadism and a fragile economy leaving many middle-class voters dissatisfied. The rise of nationalism will also occur in Asia’s biggest economies China, Japan and India as “macho men” shape the political agenda. This will lead to heightened tensions in the South-China and East China Sea, a rise in xenophobia and growing threat to religious pluralism in countries like India.
All of the above will be heightened by economic and financial uncertainty in 2016. The US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise interest rates in December 2015 has led forecasters to revise 2016 economic growth predictions downwards, anticipating further tightening policies in 2016. Contrasting perspectives will add to investor uncertainty as Chinese growth slows down. With the decline of the BRICS, ranging from economic malaise in Brazil (plagued with junk bond ratings) to Putin’s one man show in Russia – prospects do not look promising. Spiralling inflation will encourage political posturing, as leaders enamour voters with the Olympics in Brazil to Russia’s military might in Syria. All this will mark a departure from the status-quo in 2016 as rich countries will account for their largest share of global growth in ten years, overtaking the rapid growth of emerging economies.
Nationalist political heroes will maintain their grip of power, most on the promise of protecting jobs and reinvigorating economies. Chinese leaders highlight 2016 will be a stepping stone in China’s transition to a more sustainable growth model from an export-driven powerhouse. Slowing growth will also reduce wasteful Chinese capital expenditure both at home and overseas. In the meantime, the developed world will face better prospects in the labour market and can exploit falling oil prices. Developed economies with a shrinking population like Germany may demographically benefit from an influx of young migrants, contrary to what Le Pen and others will argue. Overall, there will be much to hear in 2016, and a lot more to be cautious about.
Words that speak no evil
Words spoken will have an impact on two issues key issues in 2016: the Syrian refugee crisis and UK’s EU referendum. Approximately three million migrants are estimated to arrive in Europe in 2016, adding to the 700,000 migrants that arrived in the previous year. Alarming as these numbers may be, the fact that Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey will enter 2016 with four million existing migrants from Syria alone to provide for, as per UNHCR data updated on 17 December 2015, puts this in perspective. The question for Europe is: how effective will David Cameron’s air-strikes in Syria be in addressing this? Cameron’s speech calling for action has stirred diverging reactions as evidenced in upcoming articles featured in The Cambridge Globalist. Time will tell what this means, but it will certainly impact Cameron’s legacy. Cameron’s words will have resounding impact on the treatment of immigrants from integration in countries like Germany to the arrival of refugees in Syria’s over-burdened and under-resourced neighbours. Lastly, 2016 will most likely see Britain’s EU referendum taking place, a timely move to avoid French and German elections and Britain’s EU presidency in the second-half of 2017. While most commentators speculate Britain will marginally opt to remain in the EU, a vote to opt out in England may trigger unprecedented uncertainty in Scotland – with Nicola Sturgeon promising a second Scottish independence referendum, something beyond Cameron’s wildest dreams as he promised a ‘Brexit’ referendum in January 2013. Unsurprisingly, given this snapshot of political mayhem that lies ahead, for the first time since the Great Recession, nearly two thirds of countries surveyed in the Edelman Trust Barometer, a measurement of trust in institutions, will fall into the “distrust” category. As we begin 2016, there is one lesson to be learnt: sometimes words speak louder than actions.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil: in 2016 we will confront this proverb in diverse circumstances. Some will be stories of optimism, some stories of failure. Reassuringly, the past has given us the discernment to tolerate no evil, be it in intentions, words or action – from the MDGs to the Great Recession to our handling of the refugee crisis thus far, we have successes and mistakes to reflect upon. Hopefully we will learn from them. Monkey see, monkey do – welcome 2016.