What is the state of the world in 2013?

Is the world as doomed as some media might have us believe? There are five major global issues, explains Dan Smith, and although the world is facing deep crises, significant progress on some of these key issues shows that there are ways forward

If we look back over the past quarter century since the end of the Cold War in 1989, we can see how quickly confidence about the future can bloom and wither.

A short-lived sense of a peace died in the Gulf, the western Balkans and Rwanda. Waves of prosperity came and went with the dotcom boom and bust, and the bursting of our western credit-based bubble of prosperity in 2008.

We need something rather better than that moodiness, something more stable and persistent if we are to be successful with the five big challenges we face as a global community: wealth and poverty, war and peace, rights and respect, and the health of people and the planet.

The world is marked by large inequalities of wealth. The per capita national income of the richest country is 200 times that of the poorest. And equalities within countries are mind-numbing; in England, homelessness reduces average life expectancy by 30 years, to about the same level as in Afghanistan.

Though the proportion of the world’s population that lives in the extreme poverty of less than one dollar a day has fallen significantly over the past two decades, that’s mostly because of 1000% economic growth in China. Meanwhile, 2.6 billion people – over a third of the world’s population – live on less than two dollars a day.

The problem about hoping that once current economic problems are somehow put behind us, that we’ll grow our way to a better deal at the bottom of the global pile, is the deep worldwide environmental predicament we are in. We neither know nor understand all the details, but we can see that the economic and industrial path we have been on for the last two centuries, along which we are not only still moving today but actually accelerating, is unsustainable.

Scientific knowledge may be imprecise on some details, but on the big issues there is no doubt. We are more people than ever before, using disproportionately more water and energy than ever before. Basic arithmetic shows that, on current trends, the majority of the world’s population will face water scarcity before 2030.

“This is not a peaceful world and yet it is more peaceful today than at any time since before the first world war and, some argue, ever”

As our economic output has soared, we have pumped large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the past 200 years, and the laws of physics say the effect of that is to increase the global average temperature, which is happening. And at the same time, we have generated waste and thrown it away as garbage with abandon, and if we go to the right places we can see the consequences of that with our own eyes.

Either of these issues might make you despair. The indices of inequality keep worsening and while there are many excellent initiatives on curbing waste, meaningful reductions in carbon output still seem out of political reach.

But a look at the other three big issues shows that it need not be thus. This is not a peaceful world and yet it is more peaceful today than at any time since before the first world war and, some argue, ever. Military spending remains high and armed conflict remains a major cause of death, yet by comparison with earlier times, there are markedly fewer wars and they are less lethal.

There has been an avalanche of peace agreements in the two decades since the end of the Cold War and a major sustained, if quiet, effort not only to make peace, but then to lay the foundations for long term peace in conflict-affected countries.

It would be wrong to look at the issues of war and peace and declare ‘job done’. In many countries, it is not so much a case of having achieved peace as, rather, of bottling up conflict – while many suffer from violence that is from a different mould than civil wars, growing out of a dangerous intersection between crime and politics. The main international institutions on which we rely for responding to armed conflicts are strikingly ill-prepared for this. A high UN representative can be sent to negotiate with even the most despicable of dictators, but not between a government and a drug lord. Nor does the Red Cross/Red Crescent find there the humanitarian space it needs to tend to the victims.

And there is a risk that civil wars could increase again. The environmental, demographic and economic pressures are there and governments that have tended to fund peace efforts have been hard hit by economic crisis.

These are all risks – but if the United Nations and the peace-funding governments can stay focused, there is every reason to expect a reasonably successful record of building peace to continue.

Ours is also an age of growing democracy. Today, 48% of the world’s populations live in established democracies, up from 43% in 2008. Like peace, this is a trend that needs safeguarding. Achieving democracy is perilous and closely associated with violent conflict. And when it is well established and the struggle to achieve it has been forgotten, it often seems barely to be taken seriously by those who could most benefit from it.

Even so, the health of the people is improving. There is still too much suffering from curable and preventable conditions and, in many countries, the way that mental and psychological disorders are handled primarily by silence and taboo is as big a health scandal as any.

But medical science is advancing, the genetics of cancer have been unlocked, the sequencing of the human genome has been worked out, and new treatments are being and will be developed. The progress is encouraging but there is further to go, because many of these conditions have social causes – lifestyle diseases whether of poverty or spreading prosperity.

Nonetheless, getting improvements in health, like achieving advances in democracy and spreading peace – these are signs of what can be done. Of five major world issues, the surprise perhaps is that three actually look manageable. With them, why not the other two?

Dan Smith is secretary general of the peacebuilding NGO International Alert and author of The State of the World atlas, published in January 2013 by New Internationalist, Oxford