Global Challenges at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century

What are the challenges facing humanity at the beginning of the 21st century? The widening gulf between rich and poor, the continuing rapid growth in population, and the persistence of environmental destruction are just some of the global problems. Paul Kennedy, Professor of fInternational Security Studies at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, describes these challenges from the viewpoint of an extraterrestrial visitor from Mars, but exhorts us to accept them and to see them as an opportunity. – The text is reprinted from Development and Peace Foundation, Globale Trends 2000. Fakten – Analysen – Prognosen (Global trends 2000. Facts – Analyses – Prognoses), ed. Ingomar Hauchler, Dirk Messner and Franz Nuscheler. Frankfurt/Main, Fischer Taschenbuchverlag 1999. We are grateful to the Development and Peace Foundation for permission to reproduce the text in an English translation.

Paul Kennedy

Global Challenges at the Beginning of the Twenty-first Century

The greatest difficulty we have in describing our global condition as we enter the twenty-first century is that the picture that presents itself is so mixed. Measured in terms of personal prosperity, about one-sixth of the population of the world is enjoying uncommonly high standards of living, while a much smaller percentage of those families have achieved startling levels of wealth; another one-third of humanity, in the so-called emerging economies, have seen rapid increases in per capita income over the past quarter-century; yet about one-half of the human inhabitants of the globe are still battling poverty, often to the most extreme degree. The same discrepancies exist in the realms of justice, human rights, democracy, and war and peace. States in, say, Scandanavia enjoy a happy combination of high prosperity, environmental care, social services, political and all other freedoms, whereas many countries in, say, Africa lag far behind on so many counts.

Such an extraordinarily mixed picture frequently defies our human comprehension and all too often leads observers to describe only partial accounts of the untidy, larger whole. Thus, the "cornucopian" school paints an exciting scene of a high-tech nirvana for mankind to enjoy whilst doomsters warn that we are crossing environmental and demographic thresholds that can bring disaster.

The challenge in producing such as work as Global Trends 2000 is to capture the varieties of this mixed landscape yet at the same time avoiding blandness and lack of commitment.

Perhaps the best way to think about where our planet is going is to pull right out from it and to imagine that we are members of, say, an extraterrestrial spaceship that has been circling the globe for many months, using sophisticated sensors to track ALL of the activities on this planet. The scientists in this spaceship have really advanced technologies, and big data banks, and are good at analysing lots of material, even the curious and conflicting stuff that is coming to them from the planet Earth. They have the task of sending back a summary report to their leaders on Mars, or wherever the spaceship has come from. What will they say about us, and our planet? What will impress them?

My guess is that the first thing they will report is that this is a LIVE planet, unlike so many of the barren ones they have visited in the galaxy. Not only is the Earth breathing and changing, with the seasonal alterations and the daily ritual of rainfalls and evaporation, but it contains millions of species which are also living and breathing and active. And of all those species – birds, animals, fish, insects – one in particular seems dominant. It is called HOMO SAPIENS, a two-legged mammal of various colors and sizes and two genders that lives about 75 years on average and dwells on land rather than in the water or in the air. This species has other notable characteristics. It lives in societies of many sorts and numbers, it is immensely creative, it dominates all other species, it has increasing control of the natural environment, and for better or worse it has immense powers of destruction, whether locally or globally... Right now, the Martian spaceship reports, one part of this species seems to be showering all sorts of projectiles upon another part, at a place the locals call Serbia. No other species does anything like this.

Members of the Homo Sapiens species by no means possess the same resources as each other or live in the same circumstances as each other, which is very odd indeed to our extraterrestrial observers. All the other creatures on this earth, whether they be peregrine falcons or codfish or church mice, have as a species very similar daily lives and surroundings. But the human species is different. Some societies have levels of income 200 times higher than others. One of the spaceship’s satellite cameras came low over a place called Silicon Valley and found a veritable hive of organizations creating immense wealth through the production of electronic software and hardware.

Of course this technology was still very primitive compared with that on Mars, but the human beings themselves clearly thought this was an important activity and were proud of what they were doing there. On the other hand, there were also many instances where members of this same species were experiencing totally different circumstances, hungry, homeless, torn by war, bereft of material goods, and living lives as wretched as those of their cattle or their dogs.

The reporting teams could not understand how or why this species Homo Sapiens could tolerate such vast discrepancies, especially since their very own global communications made people in the richer societies frequently aware of their poorer brethren, through a primitive imaging and transmission system which they called television. Perhaps it was that many people in those richer lands seemed to spend so much of their time watching quaint sports events and talk shows and so-called sit-coms that they managed to forget about the rest of the world. This suggested to the extraterrestrial observers that this Homo Sapiens species had some real problems which it might not be wishing to deal with.

The reason why the extraterrestrial observers believed that there were real problems on this planet Earth is not just the existing gaps between rich and poor societies, but also another sort of gap, that relating to population increases. Whereas the numbers of the other species on the Earth seem relatively stable, or in some cases have actually declined because of the pressures from humankind, the absolute numbers of Homo Sapiens have been rising for centuries and still seem to be increasing. Roughly speaking, there appear to be six billion humans on this planet and about 85 million extra persons are added to the total every year. From the population projections that the humans themselves have made, they expect that the Earth’s total of buman beings may be as many as 8 or 9 billion by 2030 and might be many more at the end of the next century. There is a great debate among the Earth people as to what that means. Can the land feed 9 billion people comfortably? Can they find employment for 3 billion young people? Will the environment be destroyed?

Such questions, although important, would probably seem to the Martian analysts to be directed at second-level issues. They would guess that the Earth people are clever enough to produce enough food and sustenance for extra billions, and they are also becoming more environmentally aware, at least in the richer, middle-class societies. Agricultural production has a great potential for expansion, albeit through the uncertainties of biotechnology, and there is much room for creating and using energy much more efficiently.

No, the big problem that our extraterrestrial scientists are likely to point to is not the absolute increases in the human population but the very skewed, or unbalanced pattern of these demographics between one region and the next.

Roughly speaking the peoples of the Earth are divided into two types, those in what are called developed regions which are rich, technology-heavy societies, and those termed developing countries which are usually much poorer and have great social and economic deficits. The really interesting thing is that the total population of the richer lands is hardly expected to increase at all over the next 50 years whereas that in the developing regions is growing very rapidly indeed. One might have thought that the richer folks, having lots of resources, would want to enjoy lots of children; and that the poorer folks would be scared to have a large family. But these humans don’t appear to think like that. Generally, the rich peoples seem to spend their money on material goods rather than on extra children; and the poorest societies have the greatest tendency to produce large families even if this strains local resources and hurts the environment. This discrepancy is broken down into forecasts of population increases by each region of this planet, and the pattern is confirmed: Africa, Asia and Latin America all expect big rises in overall population, whereas those areas called Europe, Japan and North America will be stable or will probably decline in absolute numbers.

What makes this especially intriguing is that this socio-economic and technological "gap" between rich and poor societies is not accompanied by complete and severe geographical and physical barriers. It is true that horribly disadvantaged Africa is separated from prosperous Europe by waters called the Mediterranean Sea, and that a large river called the Rio Grande separates the rich united Sates from its poorer neighbors to the South. But those boundaries are porous, especially the second one, and in any case the United States is actively leading a campaign for what is described as "globalization", that is, the ever-increasing integration between all societies on the Earth, aided by technologies such as the Internet and the television, by increased travel opportunities, by student exchanges, by massive investments of private capital in overseas countries, by cultural interactions and international organizations.

In fact, many of these Americans believe that if all the world lived like themselves, everything would be well. But the question that is rarely answered by them, or answered convincingly, is "How can the poorer, resource-depleted countries become prosperous, stable democracies like the USA and Europe when they suffer from so many handicaps to begin with?"

As this planet Earth goes into the twenty-first century, it appears that the economic and technical gaps between developed and developing countries are enormous and, in some cases, growing. Consider, for example, some simple data which compares scientific developments in one of the richer countries – in this case, Sweden – with the virtual absence of such technological activity in a poor country in Africa, namely, Uganda.

Closing that gap is the single most important challenge facing the Earth’s governments, yet not too many of them appear to appreciate that fact. Indeed, despite the admirable work of the World Bank, the UNDP and a large number of non-governmental organizations in addressing this challenge, the citizens of many rich countries seem hardly to consider it to be a problem.

Still, it would be grossly inaccurate to suggest that a simple division could be made of the peoples of the planet Earth into rich or poor, with nothing in between. For reasons that are deep in human history but probably make no sense to extraterrestrial observers, the inhabitants of the Earth have divided themselves into more than 190 separate units which they call nation-states; each has some form of governance, national symbols like a flag and an anthem, security forces, and so on. Each attends a curious and often ineffective body called the United Nations, and joins in an Assembly to vote on international matters. Some of these nations are very large and populous, others are quite small. Given the pressures toward globalization, and transparency, and universal trading standards, it would be surprising if all developing countries were as poorly equipped as Uganda and all developed countries were as rich as Sweden. There are a goodly number of countries at an "in-between" stage, and they are perhaps the most interesting societies of all.

Table 1:
Scientific and Technological Development in Uganda and Sweden (1995)

Personal Computersper 1,000 people0.53192.55
International telephone callsminutes per person0.25108.17
Telephone linesper 1,000 people2.30681.10
Cellular mobile phone subscribersper 1,000 people0.09229.36
Internet usersper 1,000 people<0.1051.00
R & D scientists and technicians (1990-1996)per 1,000 people0.066.81

Source: UNDP 1998: Human Development Report 1998, New York

To illustrate this point, one might consider some basic data gathered by the UNDP regarding two very contrasting nations located in the Caribbean and Central America, namely, Haiti and Costa Rica.

Table 2:
Development Indicators for Haiti and Costa Rica

 Costa RicaHaiti
Economic growth rate per year (1980-95) (%)3.41-2.14
Military spending as a percentage of expenditure on education and health (1990-91)5.030.0
Life expectancy at birth in years (1995)76.654.6
Infant mortality per 1000 live births1394
Literacy rate (1995)9545
Human development index (ranking of all countries)34


Gender-related development index28


Source: see Table 1

They have roughly the same climatic conditions, so that cannot explain the great differences. Haiti has 7 million inhabitants, Costa Rica around 4 million. Yet there are incredible differences in their social and economic indicators. In every one of these indicators, the differences are so striking that they must seem incomprehensible to an outside observer. Moreover, these are chiefly data upon socio-economic indicators, and do not reflect political conditions. In addition, therefore, we should notice that, whereas Costa Rica is regarded as the model democracy of Central America and has led the efforts to arrange regional peace accords, Haiti is seen as a terrible "basket-case" with little prospect of significant improvement.

Yet it seems likely that one of the greatest contrasts between these two countries is much less known about, namely, the differences in military spending and in the role of the military. Haiti still has too many people in uniform, whether soldiers or armed police. Its spending on the military is high, and remains a diversion from much-needed investments in the civilian sector. Its government is ineffective and corrupt, and relies upon armed force. By contrast, Costa Rica has gone further perhaps than any other society in demilitarizing itself. It has abolished its Army, and invites its neighbors to do the same. Its political leaders, like Nobel Peace-Prize winner Oscar Arias, preach against the arms trade and against spending on weapons, whether of the large or small variety.

For all readers deeply interested in understanding global trends, this concern is worthy of being taken much more seriously by our governments, whether in the rich countries that make and supply the weapons (and here, ironically, the liberal-democratic Americans are well in the lead of arms sales) or in poor, corrupt, non-democratic developing states that so willingly make the purchases.

The data available about armaments leads to a further matter for general concern, namely, the remarkable spending by rich and poor countries on their military compared with spending on education and health. Clearly, the developed nations have nothing to boast about; their spending on students and on healthcare are significant, but it is dwarfed by their spending on their military forces, and this despite the ending of a 40-year major arms race which we termed the "Cold War". But the disproportionality of spending on military and non-military services is even more acute in the developing world, with rare exceptions like Costa Rica, Botswana and a few established democracies. A poor country which spends a mere $ 22 per head annually on healthcare but $ 9,000 on each of its soldiers (as many of them do) shows a warped sense of priorities that is not simply immoral and offensive; it is also probably the single best indicator that that country is in deep trouble or soon will be in trouble.

There are simple, understandable reasons why the Costa Ricas of the world flourish and the Haitis flounder. These have to do with human rights, transparent government, the rule of law, correct investments in society and infrastructure, the empowerment of women, the education of young girls, and freedom of expression. They have also to do with job opportunities, or lack of them, for the millions of young people coming onto the job market. Will they find gainful employment, or turn in unemployed frustration to youth armies, violence, and fundamentalist or ethnic movements? The answer to that critical question is a complicated one, but the basic data is not in dispute regarding the location of the major armed conflicts that have occurred on this puzzling and contradictory planet during the past decade.

Here, disturbingly, is a very real and persistent global trend. The 1990s conflicts were and are all in Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, the Balkans, and parts of Latin America, that is, in regions experiencing a lack of a decent social fabric and the constant pressures of ever-growing populations. The latter is a point worth stressing, lest recent demographic indicators cause us to be over-sanguine about the future of our planet. Is it simply a coincidence that the country in Africa with the highest fertility rate is Rwanda, and the country in the Western hemisphere with the highest rate is Haiti, and the region in Europe with the highest rate is the province of Kosovo? A population explosion does not necessarily cause political and social collapse by itself, but it certainly produces a tinderbox of frustrations that can feed upon other reasons for conflict.

Still, these are the "basket-cases" and it may be unwise to allow ourselves to be mesmerized by them lest we draw too gloomy a picture of the Earth’s condition at the close of a century – which is why viewing the WHOLE planet as outside observers in space is so useful an exercise.

Thus, a more balanced way of looking at this problem might be to think of the 190 or so nation-states on our planet, or at least the 175 countries that are ranked in the UNDP’s annual Human Development Report as being located in one of three groups:

The first is the prosperous, democratic, developed countries, chiefly in Europe, North America, Japan, and Australasia but joined by several others like Israel and Singapore, probably Chile and Argentina. They number around 30 to 40, depending on the "cut-off" point one makes to the composite list.1

Then, at the lower end of the human development totem-pole, there are about 50 or 60 chronically low-income countries, chiefly in Africa but also in Asia and Central America. These are the poorest of the poor. It is highly unlikely that they will be able to rescue themselves, or that private international capital flows will come to help them. They all need help from the global community and trans-national bodies, presumably orchestrated by the World Bank.

The third and final group, perhaps the most important for the future condition of our planet, consists of the 60 or 70 states that are in the middle. Like the poorest group, they have large environmental and population and structural and social challenges, but they also have some educational and infrastructural resources, plus considerable (if rather unpredictable), access to capital. These include small island nations like Jamaica, but also big, populous countries such as India, Pakistan, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia. With the addition of China, we are talking here about 60 % of the world’s population. Where they go, you might say, goes the future of the Earth.

These are the nations, it will be recalled, that at present are being globalized, modernized, brought into the world markets and world labor force in an unprecedentedly swift time, virtually within one generation. Not surprisingly, these countries are often full of contradictions. India, for example, has the world’s largest middle class, almost 200 million people, and the Bangalore region in the southeast is the second-biggest producer of computer software in the world; but those 200 million middle-class folks are surrounded by 750 million impoverished peasants and by chronic environmental stress. It is not an exaggeration to argue that these societies are in a race against time. Can they increase their standards of living without committing ecocide, or being overwhelmed by the sheer press of young people seeking work? It is staggering to think that India adds to its population EACH YEAR the equivalent of the total population of Australia, around 17 million people. Will they all get jobs in 2020?

Figure 1:
Worldwide Growth in the Labor Force 1950–2020
(in millions) and proportion in industrialized countries (in%)


Source: ILO 1996

This is why the final chart is perhaps the most interesting of them all. It shows the growth of the world labor force over the past few decades and up to 2020, and then the breakdown between labor in the industrialized countries and labor in developing nations.

Once again, it will be noted that in the richer countries the absolute numbers are virtually static whereas those in poorer lands are booming. This then becomes the great challenge facing the peoples of the Earth over the next generation: can they bring several BILLION new workers into production for the global marketplace and steadily raise their standards of living without environmental disaster? Or are these numbers simply too big to absorb? Will the richer countries tolerate an ever-increasing flow of imports from counties with low labor costs, even if it hurts domestic workers in similar industries, or will they seek to protect themselves and hurt these developing nations’ trade? If sufficient jobs cannot be created in the developing societies, will their hundreds of millions of ambitious young people be permitted to move elsewhere, to the ageing nations of Japan and Europe? Are these developing societies being compelled to modernize too fast, and in too many ways?

It is probable that a group of extraterrestrial observers of our planet would focus on many other things than those presented here, were they writing their own succinct report on global trends. Still, whoever steps back and attempts to survey our planet as a whole is probably likely to arrive at a few basic conclusions, the most obvious of which is that sweeping generalisations about the fate of the Earth really have to be avoided.

For the plain fact is that the planet in which we live is neither enjoying neither a new, wonderful "world order" for everyone nor sustaining an outright disaster for all. It has great problems, but also great potential and great resources. As it enters the twenty-first century, it is easy either to be too optimistic or too pessimistic, because we only look at one side of the story. It is perhaps particularly easy for Americans, enjoying their eighth year of boom and an unprecedented prosperity and stock market, to assume that all is going well in the world except for some crazy people in the Balkans and some other madmen who shoot up schools in the United States itself.

But the planet is a lot more complicated than that. That is why it would take any Martian observers such a lot of time to study it, and to try to understand the broader picture. And this is why we all need to take more time to study global trends, and to reflect on where we are going. The Chinese curse says it all: "May you live in interesting times." These certainly are interesting years, and they are likely to become even more interesting times to live in when our children grow up. Knowing about these matters therefore becomes a prime prerequisite for all of us, and for membership of the world citizenry as we advance into the twenty-first century. One hundred years ago that great seer H. G. Wells said that human civilization was engaged in a race between education and its own destruction. After the wars and barbarism of the twentieth century, his forebodings look horribly accurate. Let us hope that Homo Sapiens can get through the next century with less self-inflicted damage.


1 The 1997 Human Development Report (published for the UNDP by Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford, 1997), pp. 146–148, lists 64 countries with "high human development", another 65 in the "medium" category and a final 45 as possessing "low human development", but the cut-off points seem more designed to fit the printed page than to be based upon major distinctions.


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