13 Stories That Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2013

Want to know what people, places and things will be driving the global agenda in 2013? The UN Dispatch team has you covered.  This is a listicle for the discerning, global set.  Add your own ideas and insights in the comments.

1. A Perilous Election in Kenya


Elections in fragile democracies sometimes bring out the worst in countries. The last time Kenyans went to the polls in a national presidential election in 2007, over 1,000 people were killed in post-election violence following a disputed result. That violence took on nasty ethnic dimensions with neighbors battling neighbors. An investigation by the International Criminal Court alleges that the violence was centrally directed by politicians in Nairobi.

The political agreement that ended the 2007 violence created a new constitution. In March, Kenyans go to the polls in the first national election under the new rules. This election will be a key test of the stability of Kenya’s election system, but many fear that a repeat of violence is likely. Tensions are very high. Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who draws support from his Luo tribe will face off against Uhuru Kenyatta, who is Kikuyu. These are the same forces that caused the 2007 conflagration. And, to complicate matters, Kenyatta is wanted by the ICC for his role in orchestrating the 2007 violence.  This could be a very ugly election and sow instability across the region. On the other hand, if Kenya makes it through this democracy will become more firmly rooted in the regional powerhouse. Brace yourself for a tumultuous few months in Kenya.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

2. The new “Gas Guzzlers”


Natural gas will continue to be a hot topic in 2013, but the focus will shift from the hydraulic fracturing boom in the United States to exporting liquefied natural gas. With the U.S. natural gas market glutted, energy companies are looking to export to countries like India and China, where the product fetches a higher price.

Natural gas has been hailed by some as a “transition” fuel that’s cleaner than coal and more accessible than solar or wind power. That may be true, but hydraulic fracturing releases also huge amounts of methane into the atmosphere, and the process of chilling natural gas into its liquefied form is energy intensive.

The question, “How clean is natural gas?” will be widely debated in development and climate change circles in 2013. As the developing world continues to industrialize, we may see a push for power plants and factories fueled by natural gas rather than coal. But there’s sure to be backlash from those who say natural gas is a less than ideal alternative, and from those who argue that the costs of making the switch outweigh the benefits.

-Alexandra Duszak

3. Congo’s Next Civil War? 


2012 was an eventful year for the Congo. Elements of the army mutinied in April, calling themselves M23. They took the eastern city of Goma in November, but withdrew during Uganda-mediated peace talks.

The Security Council has thus far failed to provide MONUSCO, the “stabilization” mission, with the mandate, resources, or personnel required to do much stabilizing. The Congolese army also struggles with perpetrators of human rights abuses within its own ranks.

While the peace process is challenged by allegations that Rwanda and Uganda are supporting M23, diplomats and analysts have urged that the international community stop pointing fingers and think about realistic solutions. A regional peacekeeping force, backed by South Africa, is set to be deployed to help the government fight M23; and M23 are reported to be regrouping around Goma, provoking fears of another attack on the city.

In 2013, watch the DRC for the potential renewal of civil war. Or, optimistically, if cooler heads on all sides prevail and the member states of the Security Council can overhaul their approach to the region, perhaps a peaceful solution can be pursued. Either outcome will be a long and arduous journey.

–Carol Gallo

4. Replacing the MDGs


2013 will be a critical year for the coming decades of international development, as international working groups propose ideas to the United Nations membership for what should drive the global development agenda once the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015.

Following the Rio+20 Summit in June, Ban Ki Moon appointed President Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, President Yudhoyono of Indonesia, and Prime Minister Cameron of the United Kingdom to co-chair a High Level Panel to drive discussion about the post MDG development agenda. This will likely include the creation of so-called “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs).  In November, the Panel received responses to a questionnaire from 61 Member States and the European Union that, among other questions, asked countries to “list five to ten priority areas that SDGs should address” and how the SDGs could be used in their countries.

The UN created an online portal for civil society input at www.worldwewant.org and is promoting discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #SDGs. Thematic groups are promoting their own hashtags, such as #waterpost2015. The Secretary General will ultimately decide what is sent forward to the General Assembly, and that decision is expected to incorporate the high-level panel’s input regarding which targets fit into which goals. A resulting “Sustainable Development Goals” expected to be adopted at the General Assembly in at the UN Summit in September 2013.

–Annie Feighery

5. Mali’s Hot Mess


In the past year, Mali has gone from being what many considered to be a shining example of democracy in West Africa, to a nation mired in a political, humanitarian crisis. Northern Mali is occupied by various ethnic-Tuareg rebel and terrorists groups, threatening to destabilize the Sahel region (for a great backgrounder and perspective on the crisis, read Alex de Waal’s NYT op-ed). With the imposition of sharia law, people in the North have been living under very difficult conditionsaccording to the UNHCR, 155,000 people have fled the country while about 200,000 have been internally displaced. In the capital, Bamako, political instability has stalled international attempts to broker negotiations and develop a potential military intervention to end the rebellion in the northern part of the country.

With the interim prime minister recently removed from power by the military, and the adoption of a crucial UN Chapter VII resolution to create the African-led International Support Mission (AFISMA), 2013 will likely be a tumultuous year for Mali. Presidential elections are currently scheduled for April 2013 – a key test for Mali’s ability to reinstate genuine, robust civilian rule. Without some kind of political and military unity in the capital, the success of both a military operation in the north and continued negotiations with Tuareg groups may be compromised.

-Penelope Chester

6. There Will Be Storms


With superstorms and green Christmases occurring with alarming regularity, global warming will continue to be a part of the conversation in 2013. The United States has a less-than-stellar record on climate change. The country is one of the world’s largest emitters. Former President Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol. And while President Obama has expressed a willingness to address the climate change issue, efforts to cap emissions have stalled in Congress.

Yet the growing severity of the climate change issue makes it impossible to ignore. In the northeast United States alone, two major storms — Superstorm Sandy and the derecho — caused very serious damage within a few months of each other. Elsewhere in the world, tiny island nations are facing the very real threat of rising sea levels.

The outcome of the Doha climate talks left much to be desired, but look for climate change to take on an increasingly big role in the public conversation in the new year. As Jake Schmidt of the Natural Resource Defense Council told Time, “There’s a growing sense that climate change is real, extreme weather is happening in the U.S. It shows up in all the polls.”

-Alexandra Duszak

7. #SudanRevolts


Over the summer, female students at the University of Khartoum initiated anti-government demonstrations, sparked by austerity measures, that aired a diversity of grievances related to the economy, political freedom, and human rights. The government crackdown was harsh, and many activists and citizen journalists were arrested and detained. After a lull in the fall, #SudanRevolts returned in December when four students were killed at the University of Gezira. Demonstrations erupted at the university and soon spread to Khartoum.

Some argue that the protests are not enough and Sudan needs broader societal change, including a fight to end racism. Others posit that the disparate demonstrators should unite and seize on the discord within the ruling regime before it leads to further deterioration of the state. The protests have not garnered a huge amount of international attention, for a variety of reasons, but between the increasing internal conflicts in the government and growing dissatisfaction with politics as usual among many people, #SudanRevolts is something to keep an eye on in 2013.

-Carol Gallo

8. Damed if You Do


Major dams are impending on the Mekong River, and the ramifications will go far beyond electricity. The hulking 1,285 MW Xayaburi dam on the headwaters of the Mekong is moving into production by Laos and Thailand (who will get most of the energy), despite the very vocal opposition of downstream Vietnam and Cambodia.

What will Cambodia and Vietnam get out of the project? Nothing but trouble. Scientists predict a massive decline in fish stocks downstream, as dams interrupt migration patterns for numerous species, causing changes in the ecosystem. The dam would also impair the flow of sediment, a huge concern for farmers downstream. The Cambodian and Vietnamese economies remain dependent on fisheries and agriculture, to say nothing of the sustenance farmers who will go hungry if these resources aren’t protected.

That’s not the only damaging dam project in the works: the Sesan II dam on a Mekong tributary could result in a 9.3 percent drop in fish stocks, according to scientists—and 10 more mainstream dams on the Mekong are in the works. Southeast Asia has enjoyed stability in recent years, but it’s unlikely that stability will continue if millions experience food insecurity and increasing poverty due to these hydrology projects—and it’s unlikely the affected will placidly accept this injustice.

–Faine Greenwood

9. LGBT égalité

In France, a social battle on gay marriage has divided the country. While same-sex civil unions have been allowed in France since the 90s, a new piece of legislation was introduced by President Francois Hollande’s government in November 2012 to allow same-sex marriage and adoption in France. While most Western European countries allow same-sex civil unions, few allow same-sex marriage, an issue which – like in North America and other parts of the world – runs up against strong conservative and religious sentiments. In December 2012, around 100,000 same-sex marriage supporters marched in Paris, and many counter-protests – including the somewhat ironically-named January 2013 “protest for all (“manif pour tous”) have been organized by detractors. One of the key issues raised by critics of the legislation is the issue of same-sex adoption. While a (albeit, slim) majority of French people support same-sex marriage, most polls find that a majority opposes adoption, making the legislation much more contentious. The French government expects the legislation to pass in the first half of 2013 – whether or not it does, the new law will have reignited a heated debate around LGBT rights in France.

-Penelope Chester

10. Syria After Assad’s Fall


Bashar Al Assad will fall in 2013. That is not a certainty, but a reasonable prediction given the steady gains made by the rebels over the past several weeks.

There are some nightmare scenarios that may accompany his ouster that are not out of the realm of plausibility. As a last gasp, he could unleash his chemical weapons on cities held by rebels; ethnic violence bordering on genocide could be visited against the Alewite minority perceived to support Assad; al Qaeda affiliated militants, which are already in the conflict, could unleash a spate of violence against civilians of all stripes; the entire region could be drawn into the civil war.

These are just a few potential outcomes for the endgame of a civil war that has claimed 40,000 lives and made refugees of half a million. How the how various rebel factions manage the post-Assad era will very likely drive the international conversation about Syria in 2013.

–Mark Leon Goldberg

11. The Fight Against TB May Get a Boost

While the global health community has become increasingly focused on noncommunicable diseases, tuberculosis, an old foe, continues to threaten human health around the world. The World Health Organization’s latest global TB report shows some indications of progress, but not enough. However, a significant milestone could be reached soon, which might usher in early momentum in the fight against TB in 2013 and beyond.

Bedaquiline, an experimental drug used to treat drug-resistant TB, is currently being reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. Last month, an advisory panel put its confidence in the drug, saying that it appears to be safe and effective for the treatment of multidrug-resistant TB in combination with other drugs. The FDA is expected to go along with the advisory panel’s recommendation and approve the new drug, which would make it the first medication with a new action mechanism to treat TB in about 40 years.

Improved drugs to fight this disease are long, long overdue. But at least this gets the ball rolling.

–Jaclyn Schiff

12. The New Cyber Frontier


While online attacks have taken place for a decade, it has only been in the last few years that they have been used in a major way by international actors. Stuxnet, a computer virus likely designed by the United States and Israel to target the computer systems controlling Iran’s nuclear enrichment centrifuges is the most notable, but certainly not the only example. In 2013, cyber attacks will come into their own in global politics as a cheap and plausibly deniable weapon to use against rivals. Furthermore, it was also be the year that non-state actors, particularly activists, will start looking to cyber attacks as an alternative to protests. For example, I would not be surprised if 2013 sees the first eco-terrorist cyber attack against the electronic infrastructure used by large scale meat processing plants or similar facilities. The simple fact is that as it currently stands, the ability to conduct cyber attacks wildly out-paces most organizations ability to defend themselves. For this reason, cyber attacks will be a major recurring story in 2013.

–Chris Albon

13. Meet The New Boss


Each new Secretary of State brings her or his personal priorities and objectives to the job. Hillary Clinton helped to mainstream gender issues and LGBT rights into the fabric of American diplomacy and development programs. Secretary of State John Kerry would be wise to continue to champion those causes, but what programs, ideas, and themes might he champion? I predict: climate change.

John Kerry is a climate hawk. He is among the most articulate policy makers to argue that climate change poses direct threats and consequences to American national security. He has long pressed for aggressive measures to combat climate change and mitigate its effects. As America’s top diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry will take this cause to a new level.

Expect changes in the State Department bureaucracy and American diplomacy more broadly to reflect John Kerry’s long standing commitment to combating climate. How exactly these changes are manifested will be a key issue to watch in 2013.

–Mark Leon Goldberg