2016 Present State of the World

Keynote Speech at the Opening Ceremony

33rd Annual Plenary Meeting

8 March 2016

Baku, Azerbaijan

by Olusegun Obasanjo, Co-chair


Distinguished colleagues

Ladies and gentlemen

Humanity, as we know it, began in Africa 200,000 years ago. Who would have bet on the survival of our species Homo Sapiens? We were small mammals, puny even, compared to the large predators of that time. Yet, humankind not only survived, but thrived moving out of Africa into the Middle East and Central Asia a 100,000 years ago, eventually populating the whole planet, including the Americas, the last continent to enjoy this most precious of African exports, life itself.

How did this miracle occur and what lessons can we draw from our origins to educate us as we face the state of the world in 2016? The first is that we succeeded because of the size of our brains and the ingenuity that brainpower sparked. Along with the first archaic human fossils found in East Africa in what is today Tanzania and Ethiopia are also the first tools, flint and stone scrapers. Humankind evolved into thinking animals.

A second characteristic of our archaic forbearers can be seen right here in Azerbaijan. At Gobustan, about an hour from Baku, is the UNESCO World Heritage site of ancient rock art going back 40,000 years, showing that the African Migration reached here thousands of years before the Americas. And it pleases me greatly that the rock art of Gobustan shows the Ancients dancing or praying in a communal circle. Right from the start human beings were in social communities: they lived together in families or clans, sharing food, and burying their dead revealing that they had a sense of the afterlife or at least felt that the universe was far beyond our individual time on earth. In Africa we capture this sense of interconnectedness and community with the aphorism "it takes a village to raise a child.”

Ingenuity and interdependence, therefore, were there at the beginning and as we face 2016 we are still in need of these values if we are to succeed in meeting the challenges of our age as successfully as our ancient African ancestors met theirs.

There are five global trends that are shaping our current problems, politics and potential of our planet. I will refer briefly to each and conclude on how the age old virtues of ingenuity and interdependent sharing—if applied—can serve us as they did our predecessors.

The first is the rise of the emerging powers in the world economy and how disconcerting this tectonic shift is to those who were once paramount. In the past two decades globalization has transformed the balance of economic power. In recent years, to take only one example, commodity exporters have benefited greatly from China's robust economic expansion. But in 2015 a slowdown in manufacturing output has reduced China's rate of growth to the lowest level since 1990. China will not be an engine of growth in 2016. And when China catches a cold, energy exporters like Nigeria, Azerbaijan or Canada suffer shakes and tremors too. We have only slowly begun to recognize this shift in economic power by developing institutions like the G20 but other institutions like the World Bank have been very slow to change. China therefore has gone ahead and created its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Trade with China helped insulate African countries from the full impact of the 2008 financial crisis, and to have "Africa Rising" we need China and India to flourish. Political power must inevitably follow economic power. The world must take note and adapt accordingly.

Demography is destiny. In Africa a decade ago the region had a population of 670 million people. By 2025 that figure will have doubled. And as world population expands there is a surge in youth between 15 to 30 years of age. There are now 1.8 billion young people in the world, or a quarter of the world's population. The median age of Africa is just 18! But no one is coping well with the youth surge. Europe, Greece, Spain and Italy have youth unemployment rates of between 40 and 48 per cent. In South Africa, 63 per cent of young people are unemployed! Such staggering rates of joblessness are not only a colossal waste of human potential, but they are a potential threat to stability itself. Over the next decade a billion young people will enter the global labour market and only 40 per cent can expect to be working in jobs or industries that currently exist. Our world economy produces wealth but it does not produce enough jobs to spread the wealth around: in the United States, for example, the richest one per cent of families own 34 per cent of the wealth. We are transforming the world economy into a world without work or at least a world without work as we currently know it. The thousands of young men in camps at Calais desperately trying to enter the United Kingdom are a taste of our future if we cannot reinvent the world of work.

The third trend has to do with climate.

More people on a warming planet means that the global food system is under acute and rising pressure. The energy-food-water nexus is a relationship that this Council has long identified and its impact is only growing. Population growth is driving up demand for food and energy, which in turn puts pressure on the world's ecology, which reacts by extreme drought or flooding. Our carbon intensive energy systems are locked into a collision course with the ecological balance that defines our planets boundaries. If we succeed in meeting the goals set at the recent Paris Climate Change Conference, 2015 could be a watershed year. But in international politics, as we all know, the devil is in the details: Will States, companies and individual citizens follow through on the commitments made in Paris last year? What incentives and penalties will be required to shape these behaviours? We especially know that water is a connector not just a field. Climate change most drastically affects the water cycle: and we need clean potable water to feed prevent diseases from spreading and to feed ourselves. Global water policy has rightly been a priority for this Council and we must continue to make today's leaders aware of the centrality of water.

The result of the interconnectedness of the three global trends I had described – the disconnect between emerging economic powers and the political balance of the international system, the looming demographic youth crisis and the food-energy-water stress we are placing on the planet results in a fourth trend, the rising rate of risk. Failure to deal with climate change results in extreme weather events that produce national catastrophes, which leads to instability within regions and interstate conflict, particularly when there are large pools of unemployed young men. The 2016 Global Risk Report says that the two most interconnected risks are profound social instability and structural unemployment. Terrorism has many causes but one of them surely is poor integration of youth into their societies. In Nigeria we know this too well with the terrible excesses of Boko Haram.

These new sources of risk are layered on top of old risks such as the continuing expenditure of states on arms, and the exceedingly high nuclear weapons stockpiles that still threaten instant planetary annihilation. Given all the problems I have outlined it is indeed depressing that the nuclear weapon powers are spending billions on modernizing nuclear arsenal that they say must never be used. The nuclear non-proliferation treaty with Iran is a ray of hope in stopping horizontal nuclear proliferation, and we look forward to the report of our experts’ group who has studied this issue, but vertical proliferation, expanding the range and destructive ability of these horrendous weapons, continues apace.

One result of the accelerating rate of risk in these four interconnected global trends is a fifth and most visible trend. People are on the move. Migration is a world issue of enormous importance. People are fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and crossing into their neighbours Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. From there they are streaming towards Europe. The United Nations Refugee Agency writes in a recent report that wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people that at any other time since records began to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Sixty million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014, the highest level ever recorded. Half of the world's refugees are children. The world's attention is focused on Syria, but let me remind you that Africa is experiencing the surge of migration and displaced people too with conflicts in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and the South Sudan. A world without peace is a world where millions of people would rather flee than endure and what system of border controls can hold millions of people at bay? Migration caused by conflict is the most immediate risk of them all.

To respond to these five global trends and the ever-escalating rate of risk we must return to what made us human in the first place, ingenuity and solidarity. The Africa Progress Panel, of which I am a member, in 2012, called in its annual report for "Jobs, Justice and Equity." We should demand this agenda not only for Africa but for the world as a whole. Education innovation and technology are one of the themes of this report. We must work especially hard to ensure that young women have equal education opportunity. We must ensure that young people have the chance to become entrepreneurs and use their creativity to make a better future for themselves and for us all. A learning society will be an innovative society and innovation is what we desperately need. Science is the most powerful means we have for the unification of knowledge and a main obligation of its future must be to deal with problems which cut across boundaries, whether boundaries between the sciences, boundaries between nations or boundaries between our scientific and humane concerns.

Justice and equity, the other goals of our progress panel, depend on the virtues of sharing and collective interdependence. The world has a formal commitment to these values through the recent adoption in September 2015 of the Sustainable Development Goals. There are 17 specific goals but I will only mention the goal of public health to ensure healthy lives and wellbeing for all at all ages. Last year I chaired the InterAction Council’s experts’ group on pandemics and especially the world's response to the Ebola outbreak. What we learned is that health vividly demonstrates the interconnectedness of the world: poverty and the inability of some states to have basic health care infrastructure meant that communicable diseases were not recognized until it is too late. With Ebola, in Nigeria we were able to recognize the problem and move quickly to take action. Our neighbours did not have that capacity and thousands died. Today we are now facing the Zika virus. Microbes recognize no borders. In international public health we are all in this together and the ability of international society to cooperate, invest and mutually learn is quite literally a question of life and death.

So it has been a long human journey since our species started in Africa 200,000 years ago. We have overcome many problems on that journey and now in 2016 we face more. But that journey has not only been a story of struggle and challenge. I began by mentioning that the ancient rock paintings in Gobustan show figures dancing. This should cheer us all because it shows that joy and laughter have also always been part of our human journey. Challenges abound in 2016 but with joy, laughter, ingenuity and generosity we will succeed as we always have.

Thank you very much.