12 Trends That Will Drive the Global Agenda in 2012

Ed note. Want to know what people, places and things will be driving the global agenda in 2012? 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. — Mark



1 – Africa’s Next War

The Republic of South Sudan became the world’s newest country in 2011 when it formally declared independence from Sudan in July.  The afterglow from the independence celebrations has dimmed as violence has erupted in the border regions of Kordofan, Blue Nile, and Abyei. In 2012, watch for the the continued and possibly escalating conflict between Sudan and South Sudan.

The UN reports that 417,000 people have been displaced by fighting already, and Médecins Sans Frontières has scaled up its emergency response in South Sudan to receive some 21,500 refugees fleeing from Blue Nile state. Last month, Sudan allegedly bombed a refugee camp across the border in South Sudan, and the armies of both countries have clashed directly with each other this month.  Whether via diplomatic, preventative action or only after conflict escalates, Sudan will be high on the global peace and security agenda in 2012.

—Carol Gallo



2 – The Mess We’ll Leave in Afghanistan

More than a dozen members of the 49-country international coalition in Afghanistan are preparing to bring many or all of their soldiers home next year. The foreign military footprint is expected to shrink by around 40,000 troops by the end of 2012. The United States will pull approximately 29,000 troops, reducing the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 97,000 to around 68,000. Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Poland, Denmark, New Zealand, Slovenia, Hungary, Finland and Italy will collectively withdraw thousands more.

Will the Afghan security forces be prepared to take over when they leave? The signs aren’t encouraging. Attrition, lack of discipline, disrespect for civilian lives and property, insurgent infiltration, ethnic and political fractures, corruption, and unsustainable recruitment continue to plague Afghanistan’s police and army.

Also worrisome is the fact that anti-Taliban militias nominally under government control will continue expanding in 2012 with the support of international forces. These groups have gained notoriety among ordinary Afghan civilians and civil society for their fluid loyalties, links to organized crime and involvement in human rights abuses.

The government in Kabul needs competent police and soldiers to survive the departure of foreign forces. If the international community, and especially the United States, fails to seriously address the Afghan security forces’ shortcomings in 2012, doing so in 2013 will be too late.

— Una Moore



3 – Qatar Hero

During the Arab Spring, the world’s attention was (rightly) focused on the pro-democracy protesters. However, behind the scenes, one autocratic government was quietly using it’s money and resources to support the protest movement and, through that, build it’s own power and influence.

Qatar had a hand in almost every Arab Spring movement. The small nation supplied money and weapons to fighters in Libya and worked to suspend Syria’s membership to the Arab League. Qatar based Al Jazeera helped topple Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali. Wherever you looked during Arab Spring, Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani played a role.

With the Middle East’s political landscape fundamentally changed (and still changing), Qatar is poised to become a rising power in the region. With each successful revolution Qatar supports, it gains new allies and new influence. With it’s sway over Al Jazeera, it protects itself from domestic democratic rumblings. These factors have positioned the country to be the new leader of the Middle East’s new order. So what am I going to be paying attention to in the coming year? Qatar rising.

–Christopher Albon



4 – Musical Chairs in the Security Council

The start of a new year is a time for renewal and the UN Security Council is no exception. Five new members (Pakistan, Morocco, Togo, Guatemala, and Azerbaijan) will step up to replace outgoing members for a two-year term. As ever, the dynamic of the Council will shift as new members bring their own agenda. Several strong elected members’ terms end this cycle, including Brazil, part of the BRICS bloc, Lebanon, and Nigeria. Brazil and Lebanon’s loss will leave two fewer reliable votes against strong Council action on issues like Syria, while Nigeria’s absence will leave South Africa the most powerful African voice. Among the most watched of the new members, Pakistan will be sitting across from its regional rival India.  With US relations rocky, Pakistan could be a wild-card vote as it seeks to woo support from P-5 members.

P-5 members aren’t immune to change. Protests have stepped up in the Russian Federation, in part due to Vladimir Putin’s renewed candidacy for President. Should Putin prevail as predicted, we can expect to see a Russia even more distrusting of the Western members of the P-5 on most matters. 2012 will also see a leadership change in the People’s Republic of China, though even most China experts are in the dark about the exact process for choosing new members of the Politburo and how it will affect Chinese policy-making. The 2012 UNSC already has a full plate; seeing how the Council chooses to act or not is worth watching.

–Hayes Brown



5 – Hunger Wars: Afghanistan


Close to three million Afghans are facing starvation as a harsh winter descends upon the country. A drought affecting 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces has rendered many families that engage in subsistence farming incapable of feeding themselves. The affected provinces are mostly in the north and northeast, where the loss of 80% of the staple wheat crop has left many with little to eat – some families are already reportedly limiting their diets to one meal a day. Winters can last up to six months and supply routes become impassable much of that time due to the mountainous terrain and snowfall of up to 13 feet. The international community has so far only pledged about one-third of the $142 million requested by the U.N. That is likely to impede efforts to stockpile food in affected areas before they become inaccessible. Children and pregnant women face chronic malnutrition in some of the poverty-hit areas regardless of drought.

An estimated 80% of Afghanistan’s population is involved in farming and herding. Droughts are not uncommon in Afghanistan, but their effects on crops and livestock are especially severe because irrigation remains poorly developed and water preservation is largely nonexistent. In addition to these structural challenges, the mountainous terrain and the harsh winter, a limited road network makes it difficult to reach many remote villages.

Although this drought does not affect areas with the strongest insurgency presence, serious concern still remains for the millions of people who will be cold and hungry for six months.

–Ahmad Shuja

6 – Year of the Internet Kill Switch


Could a government shut down the Internet within its borders? As proved during the Egyptian protests early this year, it may be possible—and Internet “kill switches” are on the agenda in the USA.

The Egyptian government effectively shut off the Internet for 5 days in January making it difficult for democracy protestors to communicate with one another—and marking the first time a kill switch had been used in a real-life situation. In March, the Libyan government used a yet-more sophisticated method of stopping online traffic in its tracks.

Disturbingly, the USA passed a law in 2011 that gives the President the authority to use a kill-switch in the event of a “cyber-emergency.”  The measure would theoretically give the President power over private computer systems—but the bill, as shown in this Tech Crunch article — seems to have been penned by lawmakers with a less-than-adequate grasp on how the Internet works.

Although a functioning kill switch hasn’t been implemented in the US, many believe the sweeping Stop Online Piracy Act will hamper the freedom of US network—and maybe even spur an American “Great Firewall.”

If 2011 was the year of the socially-networked protester, 2012 may be the year of the counter-revolutions. As mass protests rock governments world-wide, the darker impulses of governments–whether a democracy or dictatorship — may explore their own kill switch options.

–Faine Greenwood



7 – A More Xenophobic Europe

As the EU continues to face the consequences of the financial crisis, the economic meltdown that is threatening the Eurozone is fueling disturbing social trends. Referring to the climate in British politics, Deputy PM Nick Clegg recently said “The danger at the moment is because society is under economic stress, xenophobia, chauvinism and polarisation increase.” He added that “The liberal open society is always under pressure when there is fear and anxiety in society. ”

Indeed, the climate of fear and instability in Europe is amplifying xenophobic tendencies across the continent. The shocking attack in Norway this summer, the recent murders of Senegalese men in the heart of Florence, and the continued rise and mainstreaming of fascist and neo-Nazi ideologies are a reflection of the growing “closing off” of Europe.

In spite of their troubles, Europe – and the eurozone – remain key economic and political players globally. Nevertheless, the demise of the social and political contract that binds the EU could seriously weaken Europe, further disabling its economic competitiveness and relevance, and having lasting consequences on its ability to continue to remain “the liberal open society” it contends to be.

— Penelope Chester



8 – The UN Will Come to Take Your Guns Away. (Not)


The UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty will meet in July 2012 to discuss the as-yet-undrafted treaty, which seeks to create international standards and regulations around the international trade in conventional weapons and to criminalize breaches of those standards. While states have the right to arms themselves, the events in the Middle East  and the trial of notorious international gun-runner Viktor Bout have highlighted the potential human rights abuses that accompany an unchecked arms trade, and there has been a lot of activity and excitement around this treaty.

The ATT is also significant for the UN as a norm-setting organization. 2011 saw the last nail in the coffin of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapon’s (CCW) draft protocol on cluster munitions. While this was a victory for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty drafted and agreed upon outside the confines of the UN, the CCW’s failure has sparked some concerns about the UN’s credibility as a body capable of creating – much less enforcing – international arms control treaties.  A successful conclusion to July’s conference could breathe new life into the UN’s efforts to promote disarmament.

However, the ATT faces some serious obstacles. The decline of defense budgets in the West and a continued global economic recession suggests that exporting states may be less inclined to accept restrictions on their activities. Additionally, as the world’s top arms exporter, the support of the United States is seen as critical to the treaty’s success. Second Amendment pressure groups like the National Rifle Association have already begun whipping up supporters’ fears that the ATT will take their guns away (for the record: that’s just not true). Add a contentious US presidential election in the mix, and we can expect some serious push back against this important treaty by powerful interests in the USA.

–Diana Wueger



9 – Hunger Wars: The Sahel


The Horn of Africa crisis will still persist in 2012 (see below). But the drought conditions that sparked the crisis in Somalia is creeping westward. The Sahel–a geographic belt of semi-arid lands just south of the Sahara desert — is poised to experience a serious food crisis in 2012.

As the Sahara steadily creeps southward thanks to climate change, the dry spells experienced in this region are becoming lengthier. In late 2009, poor rainfall predicated a terrible harvest in 2010 which plunged 10 million people in Niger, Chad, Mali and Mauritania into a food crisis. Children went malnourished and livestock died in large numbers.

At the end of 2011, it looks like this pattern may repeat itself.

The US-supported Famine Early Warning System is warning of several “stressed” areas in Mali, Niger, the Central African Republic, Sudan and South Sudan that suffered from poor agricultural production this year. The humanitarian reporting agency IRIN offered some worrying numbers: “Six million people are highly vulnerable to food insecurity and possible related impoverishment and malnutrition in Niger; 2.9 million in Mali; 700,000 – over quarter of the population – in Mauritania; and over two million in Burkina Faso; while in Chad 13 out of 22 of the regions could be affected by food insecurity.”  Food prices in the region are already beginning to skyrocket.

The good news, such as it is, is that we have been warned that there’s a problem brewing. The bad news is that there does not seem to be much willpower or money to try to head off this crisis before is deepens.  Alas, expect to hear about a “Sahel food crisis” in 2012.

–Mark Leon Goldberg



1o – The Arab Spring Goes Macro (Economic)


When protestors took to the streets this year across the Middle East and North Africa, one of their many concerns was an economy that was slipping. Quality of life had been sinking for years, even as regimes got richer. Toppling the leaders, many hoped, would help reboot economic growth.

Ironically, however, over the past 12 months, the countries touched by the Arab Spring have suffered profound economic setbacks. And in 2012, as the revolutions of the Arab Spring hit their 1-year anniversary mark, the expectations to reverse the downward trend will start growing fast. In Tunisia, a newly inaugurated transitional government will be under pressure to simultaneously draft a new constitution and kick the country’s economy back into gear. In Egypt, much will rest on how a new parliament—and eventually president—can reassure the investors who have either fled or held off expanding. Libya will face a particular challenge; as a resource rich country, it will take technocratic skill and political determination to make sure that the wealth is evenly shared.

In short, the success of the newly elected governments and representatives may rest on their ability to generate growth. Look for the political conversation—so far largely dominated by issues of identity, legitimacy, and ideology—to move to jobs, jobs, jobs.

-Elizabeth Dickinson



11. A “West African Spring?”


The transfer of Cote d’Ivoire’s former president Laurent Gbagbo to the International Criminal Court this December gave other autocratic rulers in the region something to think about: illegitimate rule and illegal, kleptocratic  activities were no longer going to go unpunished.

In spite of tensions during the electoral period, Liberia and Nigeria both held presidential elections that were considered free and fair, in November and April, respectively. Other countries, however, seem to be successfully keeping democratic reform at bay. In Burkina Faso, tensions that flared between students and the government earlier in the year were rapidly quenched. In Guinea-Bissau corruption and the absence of the rule of law have cause the EU to suspend some of its aid this year.

One of the major trends to watch in 2012 is the impact of the growing international interest in West African natural resources. Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone will continue to negotiate important oil concession deals with major companies. Guinea, which has experienced yet another year of unrest and clamping down on political dissent, is still sitting on deals and projects worth billions of dollars with a veritable bevy of mining companies.

The increased presence and foothold of international corporations impacts the political environment and poses governance challenges. Aside from the potential for corruption, industry can also act as a “stabilizing” force, as the private sector can’t afford unrest to disrupt operations. On Guinea, an article in Reuters notes “Investors and rights groups are watching the government’s treatment of the opposition closely.”  A key dynamic to waytchi in 2012, is whether or not the shared interests of “investors” and “rights groups” can also become a shared agenda?

Penelope Chester



12. Somali Famine, Again


During the worst months of 2011, 4 million people in Somalia were suffering from famine. The immediate crisis has now been mostly assuaged, but there is little evidence that a similar cycle of crisis can’t be averted in 2012. Look for Somali famine, episode two.

The factors that pushed Somalia into famine this year—a drought, a political crisis that cut off humanitarian access, massive displacement, and a complete loss of livelihoods—have in no way disappeared. In fact, because the country has already suffered famine this year, its citizens will be even less resilient to crises this year. The next harvest won’t come to Somalia until August. And even with ideal weather conditions, it’s likely to be slim; hundreds of thousands of farmers abandoned their land to seek food in 2011.

At this already fragile moment, Islamist militant group al Shabaab has announced once again that it is cutting of humanitarian access. Every one of the UN agencies working in the country—with the sole exception of the Food and Agriculture Organization—has been barred from Shabaab-controlled territory. And simultaneously, an ongoing Kenyan military advance in the south has cut away whole zones of land where active conflict have made aid work impossible. Then there’s the impact on the border: With the Kenya-Somali border sealed, neither food, nor supplies, nor refugees can pass in either direction.

The worst news of all, perhaps, is that the world has already seen this movie, and it may prove harder than ever to get major donors as well as everyday citizens to offer cash again. As is far too often the case, the sequel may prove worse than the original.

–Elizabeth Dickinson