Top 10 World Woes: A look at some of the planet’s most troubling problems and how countries can solve (or try to solve) them

| January 5, 2014 | 0 Comments
A young boy in the slums of Calcutta (Kolkata).

A young boy in the slums of Calcutta (Kolkata).

U.S. President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II and countless other leaders have sought her insights. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has met with her and the government will grant her honorary Canadian citizenship. She has received multiple prizes, including the precious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and she addressed the United Nations on her 16th birthday.
It must have been a momentous occasion for Malala Yousafzai, who just months earlier was clinging to life after Taliban militia had boarded her school bus and shot her in the head at point blank range. Her crime? Malala campaigned for girls to go to school without fear in Pakistan’s Swat Valley, where fundamentalists have restricted educational access on religious grounds. Yes, it is easy to exaggerate Malala’s contributions and she has already experienced a backlash, a backlash that perhaps says more about the muddled identity of Pakistan than Malala, as The New York Times suggests. But her story of perseverance in the face of daunting challenges also points to the power of example. It is this simple premise that animates this list. Looking at the large global issues that face the world, we look to exemplary practices or individuals. Granted, this list could have been much longer and the entry under each item much more extensive. Some — maybe many — readers will quibble with some of the comments that follow. But that is perhaps the point. This list does not aim for comprehensiveness, but rather for inspiration.

 

Orangi Pilot Project volunteers help build a lane sewer in Gulshan-e-Zia, Karachi, Pakistan.

Orangi Pilot Project volunteers help build a lane sewer in Gulshan-e-Zia, Karachi, Pakistan.

1. Basic infrastructure
Effective governance does not end with the stable provision of basic services such as housing, electricity and water, but it is a good start, an elementary lesson of politics often lost in the grandest designs of statesmanship.
To appreciate this point, we need only  ponder the current state of Iraq. Parveen Rahman certainly knew how to win hearts and minds as head of the Orangi Pilot Project (OPP). One of the best-known non-governmental organizations (NGOs), it provides sanitation to poor areas at low cost, but with a high degree of community involvement in the Pakistani city of Karachi, an 18-million-person metropolis pulsating with poverty.
Her status as a respected community leader and mother figure was likely one of the reasons Rahman died at the hands of four unidentified gunmen in March 2013. No group claimed credit for her death, which occurred during a period of growing ethnic and sectarian violence with police blaming the Taliban. Other accounts suggest she had made enemies among the city’s powerful land-grabbing mafia. Whatever the reasons for Rahman’s pointless death, her legacy lives on through OPP.
One of two major community-based sanitation projects in the Pakistani city of Karachi, the NGO takes its name from what was once the city’s largest squatter settlement or katchi abadis. Home to 1.5 million people, many of its residents live  in self-made homes built on unserviced land initially purchased from illegal developers. Founded by Dr. Akhtar Hameed in 1980, the project has since helped two million people across Pakistan finance and install their own sanitation at a fraction of the cost that government contractors would have charged.
Praised in the academic literature, the project has become a model for other developing countries struggling to supply their poorest with water. OPP has since branched out into other areas, building homes, providing health services and lending money. Much of the credit for this evolution belongs to Rahman, an architect-turned-activist, who assumed leadership of the project in 1999. Rahman’s death triggered grief across Karachi and Pakistan, only to be exceeded by the inspiration she left behind.

 

Occupy Movement tents in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Occupy Movement tents in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

2. Deficit and debt
In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels argue that the “history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Anthropologist David Graeber clarifies this relationship in his book, Debt: The First 5,000 Years, in which  he writes that for “thousands of years, the struggle between rich and poor has largely taken the form of conflicts between creditors and debtors.”
This insight identifies debt as one of, if not the defining aspect of our existence. As Graeber shows with considerable skill, the concept has shaped our language, religion and politics in peculiar, profound and disturbing ways. The term itself confuses us. Most of us believe that we have a moral obligation to pay off our debts, yet many simultaneously believe that “anyone in the habit of lending money is evil.”
This moral confusion reached a temporary apex just before the current financial crisis when banks advertised cheap credit to poor people as a path towards freedom and prosperity. At that stage, we were far away from the days of American abolitionist Wendell Phillips, who argued that, “debt is the fatal disease of republics, the first thing and the mightiest to undermine governments and corrupt the people.”
The view that debt might indeed be destiny raises an important question: How does one deal with it? The question — with all its moral implications — is certainly pressing in light of the Euro crisis, the state of American finances and the level of personal debt across western societies. Graeber — the chief theorist of the Occupy Movement, according to The New York Times — recommends, among other remedies, a biblical-style jubilee (the national cancellation of private debt), one that would affect international and consumer debt.
In searching for solutions, economists  have also focused their analytical energies on an unlikely source of attention — Latvia — a Baltic country of two million people and annual GDP of a mere $30 billion. Six years after its economy tanked, Latvia is now the European Union’s fastest-growing economy and the country is set to join the Eurozone this month.
For the European Union, Latvia is proof positive that harsh austerity measures can work in cutting deficits and managing debt as part of a larger economic recovery. Specifically, Latvia drastically cut spending, among other measures. Germany — whose constitution severely limits the ability of the federal government to incur future debt — frequently points to Latvia as an example of what austerity can accomplish.
For others, including Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman, Latvia might be too much of an outlier, an oddity. A study conducted by a trio of International Monetary Fund (IMF) economists and published by the Brookings Institute in September 2009 gives both sides ammunition but also challenges some of their preconceptions. This said, both Graeber’s thoughtful analysis and Latvia’s practical experience offer much inspiration for further action by countries struggling with all aspects of debt.

 

An HIV/AIDS patient at the Bairo Pite clinic in Timor Leste

An HIV/AIDS patient at the Bairo Pite clinic in Timor Leste

3. HIV/AIDS
More than 30 years after American public health officials reported the first cases of a strange form of pneumonia, people committed to fighting the disease we now know as HIV/AIDS find themselves in a strange no-man’s land.
On one hand, they can claim to have made major advances in treating and containing the disease. A diagnosis was once a death sentence and some feared HIV/AIDS would have the same effect on Africa as the Black Plague had on Europe. Now, global death figures related to HIV/AIDS have been on a downward trend and a family of new antiviral drugs has made the disease somewhat manageable.
On the other hand, HIV/AIDS still claims 1.6 million people a year and it is far from certain whether science will ever find a cure or vaccine. Political support, in fact, may be waning. Michel Sidibe, executive director of the United Nations AIDS agency, said in 2012 that the opportunity to end AIDS will ‘’evaporate’’ if governments do not show greater political will and increase investments to make gains available to millions more people.
Even Bill Gates, whose foundation is spending billions on developing AIDS preventions, in calling for new tools, questions whether the AIDS epidemic is going to end anytime soon. Some of these tools might be coming from a variety of places. Several major countries, including the United States, China and Brazil have copied the comprehensive prevention approach pioneered by British Columbia in 2006. This approach consists of widespread testing and the immediate offer of drugs in case of a positive diagnosis.
Elsewhere, business has filled the gap. Consider South Africa, one of the worst-hit countries. According to the CIA World Factbook, the country recorded the highest number of HIV/AIDS-related deaths (310,000) and the most adults living with HIV/AIDS (5.6 million) in 2009 — or almost 18 percent of the country’s adult population. Yet things could be far worse if it had not been for the contributions of the country’s largest corporations. Starting a decade ago, companies such as De Beers started to test their employees for free and, if necessary, supply them with the  necessary drugs. The need for action was certainly urgent when these initiatives appeared. HIV/AIDS infection rates among adults had spiralled out of control to 17 percent from 1 percent in 1991 and the drugs that would keep them alive were simply unaffordable for most South Africans.
Worse, the government was failing them by promoting unsubstantiated theories about the spread of AIDS. Former South African president Thabo Mbeki, for example, has previously questioned the scientific consensus that the human-immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes AIDS by blaming it on poverty, poor diets and social ills. Reports have also linked Mbeki with the claim that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency invented the disease to wipe out homosexuals and African-Americans.
Things have since improved. As The Economist notes, the story of how South Africa averted the apocalypse has many heroes, from health workers to AIDS activists. But big business also played its part. Yes, its contribution was undeniably also to its own benefit, but it nonetheless shamed the South African government into action when it was perhaps needed the most.

 

As of the end of 2012, the number of China's elderly population reached 194,000,000, or 14.3 percent of the total population.

As of the end of 2012, the number of China’s elderly population reached 194,000,000, or 14.3 percent of the total population.

4. Demographic change
“The demographic die is cast: there is little we can do to reverse or even slow the (aging) of Canada’s population over the coming decades. But it is certainly within our power to plan better for it. And better planning begins with better information concerning the long-term fiscal implications of the coming demographic shift.”
So opens a 2006 Canadian Senate report into Canada’s demographic destiny. Four years later, a report by then-parliamentary budget officer Kevin Page offered the first official warning about the economic effects of declining birth rates: “The government’s current fiscal structure is not sustainable over the long term.” This warning also applies to the rest of the western world and, increasingly, parts of the developing world where key emerging powers, including China, run the genuine risk of growing old before becoming prosperous. Political responses to this greying will vary across regions and it may be very difficult to discern any best practices with so many long-term variables such as medical advances and economic conditions shrouded in mystery.
That said, this demographic transition is already creating a distinct, seemingly paradoxical, geography. On one hand, rural areas are shrinking. On the other hand, urban areas are growing as young, creative types abandon the rural areas for opportunities in cities, with many choosing to live on their own. This “greying” of developed societies occurs at the same time as many are becoming more “colourful” through immigration, a necessity in the face of low birth rates.
Not surprisingly, immigrants generally choose to settle in urban instead of rural areas. These coinciding trends pose simultaneous problems for urban planners — how does one create an urban space that accommodates the needs of the aging with the desires of a diverse population?
The German capital of Berlin has wrestled with this question for some time in supporting several private initiatives that attempt to turn these present tensions into future opportunities. They include various projects, such as intergenerational housing developments and intercultural gardens designed to foster greater understanding  and sustainable living practices. Steps of this sort are just the first rungs of a long ladder. But they nonetheless point in the right direction.

 

A drug user in Vientiane, Laos

A drug user in Vientiane, Laos

5. Drug abuse
Undeniably, drug abuse and the trade of illegal drugs that precedes it, have been and will be facts of modern life. But another reality is also dawning. It is becoming increasingly difficult to justify the expense of fighting the manufacture, distribution and use of illegal drugs through prohibition, incarceration and military intervention.
While drug control budgets have risen exponentially since the early 1980s, according to the CATO Institute, neither the use nor the availability of drugs has decreased accordingly. In fact, the average cost of marijuana, cocaine and heroin has decreased, just as their purity levels have increased. In short, more people are using more potent drugs, yet the vast complex behind their manufacture has never been more powerful and deadly, despite all the best, but arguably futile, efforts to destroy it.
We must merely consider current circumstances in Mexico to appreciate this point. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the “drug problem” has received more attention than usual in recent years, particularly in the Americas, one of the primary regions of production and consumption.
Two schools have emerged. The first, advanced by global groups such as the Global Commission on Drug Policy, emphasizes harm reduction in treating drug use as a public health issue. This approach also encourages experimentation in the legal regulation of certain drugs such as marijuana.
The second approach, as articulated by the United States, emphasizes measures that reduce supply and demand. While both approaches have points of agreement, they may also be sources of
conflict, as was the case in 2012 when most members of the Organization of American States favoured the first approach, while the U.S. and Canada insisted on the second.
Supporters of harm reduction will particularly point to the successes of supervised injection sites in reducing the effects of drug use. Since 2001, more than 80 such sites have sprung up around the world, mostly in Europe but also in Australia (Sydney) and North America (Vancouver). These sites — “shooting galleries,” as critics call them — remain politically controversial because they appear to allow, or even encourage, harmful criminal behaviour.
But they enjoy support from the medical community and top courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada. In 2011, it unanimously confirmed the constitutional legitimacy of Insite, Vancouver’s safe injection facility. According to statistics reported in the March 2012 edition of the University of British Columbia Medical Journal, this facility has received 300,000 unique visits by its users, with more than 500 supervised injections occurring daily in 2010. Of the 221 overdoses that year, none was a fatality thanks to the presence of trained medical staff. Insite has also received credit for a 35-percent decrease in overdose-related fatalities since its 2006 opening in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. That neighbourhood also reported other improvements, such as reduced public disorder and other pathologies.
Facilities such as Insite will not end the epidemic of illegal drugs around the world, but they will help ease the human suffering drugs cause.

 

Women count money at a micro-credit lending station in Togo.

Women count money at a micro-credit lending station in Togo.

6. Alternative finance methods
Imagine the following scenario: You and a group of friends pool a predetermined sum of money in a communal pot. You hold regular meetings during which your group awards the money to a member — be it by drawing lots or some other method. The winner is then free to use the money in any way seen fit.
This process then repeats itself until everyone in your group “wins,” with no member eligible to win a pot more than once. This essentially describes a chit fund, an informal savings group popular in India. While not new, arrangements of this sort are enjoying a rise in popularity after micro-credits suffered a loss of credibility in the early 2010s when lenders started to act with the manners of loan sharks. In fact, Indian politicians have blamed local lenders for dozens of suicides, according to the Economist.
Micro-credit initiatives remain ubiquitous. By one estimate, 120,000 such programs exist worldwide and it is clear that they have made a difference in the lives of millions of people. In Thailand, for example, a government-supported micro-credit lender has vastly improved access to financial resources for people who previously lacked it. More than 96 percent of Thailand’s population now has access to financial products through this lender. That said, Thailand’s Village and Urban Revolving Fund stands accused of freezing out private and non-governmental micro-financiers. In short, some of the conditions that we associate with “macro” financial institutions — predatory lending practices, corruption through political patronage — may have found their way into micro-financing, thus encouraging more alternative arrangements, such as chit funds, which rely more on pooling savings than on lending. This, of course, does not mean that these schemes do not attract schemers and scammers. If the financial crisis of 2008 has taught us anything, it is this: No financial scheme is immune to human greed. But it is one thing to rip off faceless investors, unsuspecting masses of borrowers and the public purse. It is another thing to violate the trust of your friends and neighbours.

 

A farmer in Nyala, Sudan, harvests sorghum produced from seeds donated by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

A farmer in Nyala, Sudan, harvests sorghum produced from seeds donated by the Food and Agriculture Organization.

7. Protection of arable land/human population growth
Arable land is absolutely essential to agriculture and therefore, human existence. Estimates suggest the global human population will reach nine billion in 2050. Yet the supply of arable land suitable for the cultivation of crops is shrinking.
According to the Global Land Assessment of Degradation published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), human activity has degraded nearly two billion hectares, representing 22 percent of the world’s cropland, pastures, forests and woodlands since the 1950s.
Climate change is also threatening to  compound the arable land scarcity. This issue has gained particular currency in China. Home to about 20 percent of the world’s population, only seven percent of the land in this emerging power is arable — a share that is shrinking rapidly in the face of at least two factors: rapid urbanization and changing dietary preferences.
According to the journal Science, cities have swallowed up on average more than 860,000 hectares of arable land each year between 1998 and 2006. Science also reports that Chinese food choices have changed significantly. In 1978, the Chinese consumed eight million tonnes of meat. By 2012, this figure had risen to 71 million tonnes.
While a sign of prosperity, this shift has converted one-third of China’s total grain harvest to livestock feed. Climate change, Science reports, could exacerbate the loss of arable land. Rapid plant maturation and water shortages are threatening wheat yields in the country’s northern region, while rice-growing areas in China’s south and east face a dual threat of rising sea levels and heat stress.
So what is to be done in the face of population pressures? To put it plainly, the problem demands multiple, simultaneous solutions. First, non-arable land must be converted into arable land, a difficult, often expensive task. Second, farmers must bridge the gap between actual and potential yields on land. The use of organic inputs such as manure, the introduction of improved crop varieties and the planting of nitrogen-fixing leguminous trees have all been shown to improve soil fertility and reduce harmful fertilizer use. Third, suitable land must be brought into production.
Currently, 12 percent (more than 1.5 billion hectares) of the world’s land surface is used in crop production. This area represents more than one-third (36 percent) of the land estimated to be suitable for crop production to some degree. Fourth, and arguably most important, existing arable land must be protected, a task that requires, first and foremost, effective, co-operative governance with an emphasis on solutions that discourage local farmers from exploiting their land for short-term gains that denude it in the long term.
Brazil and India have taken steps towards that goal. The literature also links the scarcity of arable land with its unequal distribution among populations. Resolving that issue, however, will likely prove to be far trickier.

 

This United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspection team's 1991 mission was the elimination of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

This United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) inspection team’s 1991 mission was the elimination of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

8. Proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
Can it be done? That is the question that many asked when the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2118 that binds Syria to destroy its chemical weapons and the facilities to produce them.
The agreement was reached after the U.S. and France threatened military action against Syria after the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons against rebels holding the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. This resolution is unprecedented because its execution falls in the middle of a civil war. In fact, it robs one of its participants — al-Assad — of one of its largest trump cards.
Yes, the Framework for Elimination of Syrian Chemical Weapons as negotiated by the U.S. and Russia has not stopped the regime from slaughtering its armed enemies and innocent civilians by conventional means. And yes, the regime may yet find ways to evade it or interpret the terms in its favour. But the significance of this agreement cannot be overstated.
First, it lessens the availability of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East — the very definition of a volatile region — and serves as a reminder that much more must be done to stop the proliferation of such weapons throughout the region. Second, it may set a precedent for the resolution of future conflicts with similar contours. Granted, this agreement is far from perfect.
For example, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, James Jeffrey, called it the “least bad solution” and people in charge of its execution have called it  “Herculean.” Yes, the process that led to it revealed significant flaws in the infrastructure of global governance, not to mention significant tensions between the U.S. and Russia. But this agreement — which, in all likelihood, prevented the deployment of weapons of mass destruction — is a far more preferable approach than past attempts to address this issue.
We must merely ponder the rationale for the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Weapons of mass destruction are not going to disappear overnight. At the same time, it would be a mistake to succumb to fatalism. The historical record reveals that crises of this sort can also lead to meaningful reforms. Consider the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It helped improve communications between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union through the introduction of a hot-​line and helped set the stage for several important arms-reduction measures, including the 1963 limited test ban treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT). This agreement involving Syria confirms that pattern.

 

Citizens want access to clean energy as long as the windmills, such as these ones in Texas, aren’t in their backyards.

Citizens want access to clean energy as long as the windmills, such as these ones in Texas, aren’t in their backyards.

9. Renewable energy
The technological race to develop the most effective and efficient forms of renewable energy has been under way for some time now. Early front-runners include China, which has invested heavily in solar energy and battery technology, and Germany, whose Energiewende (energy transition) arguably qualifies as the most ambitious societal project since unification. Other notable entries include Japan and, belatedly, the U.S. Whoever wins this race will likely enjoy an economic, not to mention political, advantage for some time, perhaps comparable to the position of the United Kingdom during the first half of the 19th Century.
Ironically, it is the historical cradle of the Industrial Revolution that may once more point the way towards the future in reconciling the technological aspects of the transition towards renewable energies with its societal problems. As Germany’s experience has so aptly demonstrated, citizens want access to clean energy in principle, but not necessarily in practice if windmills, energy storage facilities or power lines spoil their backyards or vistas.
The economics of producing renewable energy in certain regions, then transmitting it to regions where it is needed, has also distorted the marketplace. And since energy companies have more powerful lobbies than consumers, it is the latter who must bear the costs of these inefficiencies. Consider the following numbers from Germany: According to the German association of energy and water industries, Germany’s renewable energy policies cost the country’s electricity consumers 8.2 billion euros in 2010. In 2012, that figure had risen to 14 billion. Not surprisingly, Germany is trying to shift the burden back to industry to ease the burden on consumers. In early 2013, about half of the average electricity bill went to taxes and subsidies for renewables rather than the actual price of electricity. An absence of genuine public input and bureaucratic infighting round out this picture.
Enter renewable energy co-operatives. Thirty such groups have sprung up across the United Kingdom since 2008, with the trend pointing upwards. While these groups differ, they generally bring together citizens concerned about climate change and willing to work towards renewable energy projects that respect local conditions and choices. These projects generate relatively little energy compared to large-scale commercial enterprises, but they can be far more flexible. Their emphasis on local buy-in anchors the ethics of renewable energy and ensures that its rewards, financial and otherwise, stay within the community.

 

Hillary Rodham Clinton (left), with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at a UN event on gender equality.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (left), with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Trinidad and Tobago Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at a UN event on gender equality.

10. Gender equality
Many factors account for the competitiveness of countries. One of them is the gap, or the lack thereof, between genders. While the relationship between gender equality and competitiveness is correlational rather than causal, according to the authors of the Global Gender Gap Report 2013 released by the World Economic Forum, it is consistent with the theory that empowering women and reducing gender inequality enhance productivity and economic growth. This lesson, however,  remains lost on most of the world. That is the central message of the report. It has been tracking gender disparities since 2006 across four categories: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; health and survival and political empowerment. To be blunt, no country in the world has achieved gender equality.
That said, some countries deserve special mention. Not surprisingly, four Nordic countries — Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden — lead the 2013 ranking in having closed between 81 percent and 87 percent of their gender gaps. The last- ranked country, Yemen, has closed a little more than half of its gender gap.
Why have these countries succeeded? They report among the highest labour force participation rates, the smallest salary gaps between women and men and the most opportunities for women to assume positions of power. While their respective patterns vary, the economies of these four Nordic countries have made it possible for parents to combine work and family, resulting in high female employment, more shared participation in child care, more equitable distribution of labour at home, better work-life balance for women and men and, in some cases, a boost in declining fertility rates.
Of particular interest is the fifth-placed country on this list: the Philippines, one of only two developing countries and the only Asian country to crack the Top 10. The country earned this ranking on the basis of statistics that show Filipino women play important roles in the political and corporate elite. The World Bank reported similar findings in 2010. Cultural traditions have undeniably contributed to the presence of powerful women in Filipino politics and business, but so have public investments in education and several legislative initiatives, including, but not exclusively, the landmark Republic Act 9710 or the “Magna Carta of Women” passed in 2009. The Philippines has also led the way on legislation designed to curb human trafficking (which disproportionately affects women) and gender-specific violence. Critics will correctly note that much work remains to be done. But the Philippines shows that developing countries can enhance their human capital with limited means. As such, it stands as a challenge to emerging economies such as China, which remains trapped in old patterns despite its undeniable economic success. Tellingly, China has dropped in this ranking, going from 61st in 2010 to 69th in 2013.
No single measure can capture the complete situation of half of the world’s population.
No single action can ameliorate existing inequalities. Some of the measures that exist in the exemplary countries cited above emerged through top-down government actions, others through grassroots actions. But they all point to one conclusion: Societies that fail to empower women do so at their own peril.

Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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Wolfgang Depner is a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia – Okanagan and the co-editor of Readings in Political Idealogies since the Rise of Modern Science, published by Oxford University Press.

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