10 Stories That Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2015

These ten stories may be off the radar of the mainstream media, but for most of the planet these trends and events will have serious and lasting consequences for years to come. I give you UN Dispatch’s annual year in preview–a listicle for the discerning global set.

1) Creating the Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015 the Millennium Development Goals will expire. In their place will come the Sustainable Development Goals. What exactly these goals will include and how they will get implemented will be discussed and debated at the United Nations over the next 10 months. What’s ultimately decided will have a profound impact on the international development agenda for the next 15 years, with potentially world historic implications.

A working draft of the proposed SDGs includes 17 goals and 169 targets. The most audacious of these is to totally eradicate extreme poverty, as defined by those living on less than $1.25/day, by 2030. Other proposed goals include ending the AIDS epidemic, ensuring access to sustainable and affordable energy sources, and reducing inequality in countries. There are big questions, big debates, and some disagreement around each of the 17 proposed goals. Diplomats and delegates will be racing the clock to finalize the elements of the SDGs by the time heads of state gather at the United Nations in September for their annual summit. If all goes according to plan, a draft will be ready by then and the international development agenda from 2015 to 2030 will be ready. This means that for most of the 7 billion people on the planet, 2015 is an exceedingly consequential year.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

2) The Last Best Hope for an International Climate Change Deal

Two months following the big SDG summit at the United Nations comes the Paris Climate Talks. This is the international community’s last chance to come together around a common plan to reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

After the weak agreement that came out of the last big climate confab in Lima, Peru this past month the heat is on for the Paris climate summit in December 2015. Leading up to Paris there are also some crucial intersession meetings on adaptation – or tackling the complicated issue of how countries will adapt to the effects of climate change.  We can expect small island states and developing countries like India and Brazil to play critical roles in these meetings.  We can also see a change within the UN system to include more private sector interaction in some aspects of these negotiations. Some argue this is positive, noting that the private industry caused the pollution mess but also have the means and money to fix it. Others say the relationship could get too close and hinder real progress.  Whatever the case, keeping the world to warming only 2 degrees Celsius can longer be thought of in the abstract as typhoons, hurricanes, drought, and floods affect everything from food supply to business operations. 2015 will be a make or break year for the international community to finally come together and create common solutions to slow emissions, help countries adapt to the damage already done by climate change, and create new pathways for developing countries to grow their economies in environmentally sustainable ways.
–Mythili Sampathkumar


3) Big Elections in Africa

In 2015, voters in almost half of the countries on the African continent will be casting ballots. Twenty countries will be holding elections, including presidential elections in at least twelve countries (Zambia, Nigeria, Egypt, Togo, Tanzania, Mali, Ethiopia, Burundi, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, Chad, Cape Verde, Libya, Niger, Seychelles.)

Elections do not a democracy make, but they are the vital sign of a healthy one. Immediately after the Cold War, the number of democracies jumped from three to 18 – that was in 1994. In 2014, 19 countries in Africa were considered democracies.

One of the key races to watch in 2015 is Nigeria’s presidential election in April 2015, when the continent’s most populous nation will vote to either re-elect the incumbent, President Goodluck Jonathan (a southern Christian), or give the presidency to former general Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim from Nigeria’s north, who is currently posing the biggest challenge to Jonathan. The current president will have to defend his legacy, particularly his approach in the fight against Boko Haram, the increasingly bold extremist Islamist group.

In April, Tanzanians will vote on a new constitution, to replace the 1977 one currently in place . Some of the important advances in the new draft constitution include equal land ownership rights for women, and the establishment of an independent electoral commission. Later in the year, Tanzania will also hold presidential elections, with no incumbent. Due to term limits, current president Kikwete will not be able to run.

In 2015, we will be watching these elections closely – particularly in countries where autocrats have been in power for much too long –  and looking for increased freedom and political space for candidates, activists and voters to make their voices heard, in open, transparent and inclusive elections.

–Penelope Starr

4) Dropping Oil Prices Effects on the Developing World

The ongoing fall in the price of crude oil, currently at $54 a barrel, will continue to reverberate through 2015 as more oil exporting economies are forced to absorb lost revenue. Consumers may enjoy cheaper gas prices, but developing states that rely on oil exports are facing growing budget deficits and economic uncertainty. With 95 per cent of Venezuela’s economy based on oil, there are fears the country may soon default on its debt with disastrous consequences. Likewise Nigeria, which is already facing upheaval with the ongoing conflict with Boko Haram in the north, recently trimmed its budget by 12 per cent due to lost revenue. As states are forced to enact austerity measures, the likelihood forturmoil in 2015 grows.

However the consequences of falling oil prices extend beyond just oil exporting states. For now oil importing states such as Kenya and Uganda are benefitting from lower costs – so much so that economic growth forecasts have improved throughout much of East Africa – but this may be a short-lived effect. While not oil exporting today, recent discoveries of natural gas along the entire East African coast means that these governments have placed huge investments in capitalizing on these resources. But as long as oil prices remain depressed, the likelihood of attracting foreign investment or seeing returns from existing investment remain moot.

Thus while eyes will remain on Russia and the Middle East to see how those states react to oil’s decline, the real story in 2015 will be how the decline impacts developing nations around the world.

— Kimberly Curtis

5) The Ebola Crisis Lingers in West Africa, Fades From View

At the end of 2014, the World Health Organization was reporting 20,000 ebola cases. That number would not have been imaginable in 2013, but going into 2015, the trendlines of the ebola outbreak are encouraging. So far, the outbreak has been contained to just three countries in West Africa: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Localized outbreaks in Nigeria, Mali, Senegal (as well as in the United States and Spain) have been effectively controlled. In Liberia the number of new ebola cases is on the decline. Data is harder to gather in Guinea, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the outbreak is slowing there as well. Sierra Leone has been more stubborn, but a renewed focus on safe burial practices may presage a slowing of transmission.

In 2014, the virus killed a disproportionate number of health workers in countries that did not have doctors or nurses to spare. A key challenge in 2015 will not be just to end the outbreak in these three countries, but also repair the health systems that were broken by ebola. The extent to which the international community’s attention to strengthening health systems does not fade with the number of ebola cases will be a key measure of whether or not the world is prepared to make the kinds of investments that could prevent the next outbreak.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

6) People Power in Africa

 2014 was a year full of political protest and demonstrations of people power, related to a variety of issues, from Venezuela to Hong Kong; from Thailand to the United States. African countries have been no exception. In Nigeria, scores of protestors continue to demand action from the government to rescue the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by militant group Boko Haram. Protests that began in Sudan in 2011 continue to evolve under the radar. Perhaps most notable were the protests in Burkina Faso over changes to the constitution that would have allowed the president to extend his 27-year rule. The president was compelled to resign. (See below)

2015 promises more of the same, as scholars Zachariah Mampilly and Adam Branch argue that we are in the midst of a third wave of African protest. The first wave saw anti-colonial movements in the 1950s and 60s that led to independence; and the second wave of protest in the 1980s and 90s was a response to austerity measures imposed by the IMF and World Bank, a movement which led to a burst of democratization on the continent. Mampilly writes that this third wave is much like the previous two in that the focus is diffusion of political power and resources, and protest against autocratic rule that benefits the elite at the expense of the people. Two likely hotspots to keep an eye on in 2015, where there is anticipation that the constitution will be changed so a long-time president might stay in power: the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi, with elections scheduled for 2016 and 2015 respectively.

— Carol Jean Gallo

7) Can Tiny Burkina Faso Lead the Way?

2014 was a momentous year for Burkina Faso. The people of Burkina Faso, fed up with the lack of genuine democratic and economic progress in their country, got rid of long-time president. Blaise Compaore had been seeking to remain head of state by modifying the constitution to allow him to run in the upcoming elections. But the will of the people changed that – Compaore fled the country, leaving a power vacuum quickly filled by the military. A young, relatively politically inexperienced, but shrewd Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, a former elite presidential guard, took over the reins of power. In a matter of days, political, civil society, religious and community leaders representing the various parts of Burkinabe society, came together to come up with a transition plan and appoint ex-diplomat Michel Kafando as interim head of state.

As much as 2014 was a critical year for democracy in Burkina Faso, 2015 will be even more important.With an ambitious agenda to drive a successful democratic transition in 2015 – including elections scheduled for October – Burkina Fase will either be a symbol of hope for those fighting autocracy in Africa, and beyond, or become entrenched in a stagnant, democratic-only-in-name situation.

–Penelope Starr

8) The Central African Republic Reaches a Crucial Inflection Point

In 2015, we will be closely watching how the crisis in the CAR evolves. Following nearly 2 years of ongoing conflict, pitting a Muslim minority against the Catholic majority, the current interim head of state is still struggling to turn things around, and establish the necessary foundation for a peaceful resolution. The crisis, however, is much deeper and more complex than ethno-religious belonging – though the Muslim ex-Seleka, and Christian anti-balaka, have used religion to manipulate deeply rooted discontent. The CAR’s Human Development Index value for 2013 positioned the country at 180 out of 187 countries. UNICEF and other children-focused organizations are speaking of up to 10,000 children in armed groups, on top of a massive humanitarian crisis: 25% of the population displaced both internally and regionally. The peace process continues to be marred by incidents of violence – such as the recent militia clashes which left dozens dead. Elections were supposed to be held in February 2015, but the schedule has been pushed out to August 2015 – for now.

Over the course of 2015, French forces – the first to respond when the country descended into chaos in December 2013 – will draw down, and the UN peacekeeping mission will reach its full force. Will there be viable presidential candidates, who will be able to move beyond polarization? The challenges ahead are significant for the CAR, and 2015 will be an inflection point.

— Penelope Starr

9) Syria, and the Unrelenting Pressure on the Humanitarian System

Going into 2015, the The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, OCHA, issued a humanitarian appeal for $16.4 billion to provide for the basic humanitarian needs of 55 million people affected by manmade and natural disasters. This is by far the largest appeal of its kind, breaking last year’s record-setting appeal of $12 billion.

The crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic and South Sudan collectively account for 70% of the world’s humanitarian needs and the funding to fully address each crisis is simply not there. For example, agencies needed $2.2 billion to deal with the displacement crisis in Iraq caused by ISIS’ incursions, but donors have so far committed less than $750 million.The collection of UN agencies and NGOs that typically provide humanitarian relief in emergencies are stretched beyond their breaking point.

By far the biggest strain on this system is Syria–which alone accounts for $8.4 billion of the 2015 appeal. Last year at this time, we called 2014 a make-or-break year for Syria because of the possibility of a UN-brokered ceasefire. Going into 2015, there is no plausible plan for a ceasefire nor political solution to this crisis. This means that humanitarian needs will only increase throughout the year, as has been the pattern in year’s past. It is also exceedingly likely that donors will not provide for the basic humanitarian needs of all Syrians affected by the conflict. We have already seen evidence that this may be the case: in December 2014, the World Food Program ran out of funds for its Syria program and had to rely on crowd funding to resume food deliveries. In 2015, we can expect Syria to continue to be an unbearable burden for the humanitarian community, the consequences of which will reverberate in crises around the world.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

10) A Different Kind of Crisis Response 

In 2015, crisis mapping – which allows responders to create real-time maps from a synthesis of different media sources-  will hit the development news more than ever, thanks to the increasing cheapness and ease-of-use of this newly minted method of information gathering.

While most in development are aware of the basics of crisis mapping, some recent innovations have made the practice more relevant than ever, such as newly-created “microtasking” systems that allow the work of data analysis to be spread around the world to many volunteers. In this developing category is theMicroMappers system of “clickers” designed to help volunteers categorize different kinds of data, such as text and imagery.

The system was recently used to analyze the destruction caused by Typhoon Ruby in the Philippines, working in coordination with OCHA and the Standby Task Force.

Meanwhile, the spread of inexpensive and easy to use UAV (drone) technology will allow organizations to quickly gather real-time photos and videos of disaster areas, without having to wait for coverage from manned aircraft. This data can then be put online and analyzed by volunteer teams. The imagery also has value in the recovery process, as a 2012 UNOSAT survey of the rebuilding process in Haiti proved.

The increasing democratization of high-tech disaster response methods will be well-worth watching as 2015 unfolds, and as these techniques are adopted in more regions of the world.

–Faine Greenwood