Oh, hey there 2016. Even though everybody keeps telling me that the world is getting better, 2015 sure did not feel like much of an improvement.
In the spirit of looking ahead, here are the stories I think will be the most important over the next year. I had a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come last night and this is what it showed me. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. The ghost didn’t seem so sure about everything, maybe some of the bad things will not actually happen. I hope that is the case.
Refugees remain a global challenge
There is really no end in sight for the number of people fleeing their homes for asylum. Syria and Iraq will continue to be the source of the majority of refugees. I believe 2016 will see the beginning of the end of the Islamic State as we know it today and it will shrink to a small terrorist organization like Al Qaeda of old. But the underlying political problems in the two countries are unlikely to get better any time soon.
The real problem will be the countries already hosting refugees, like Lebanon and Jordan. Millions of Syrian refugees are in near-by countries living in poor conditions. With little hope of returning home in the near future, more will leave for Europe with the hope that they can find a better life.
That continued influx will not be well received as right-wing political parties continue the gains they made in the past year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel already back-tracked on her refugees pledge. Watch for more leaders to appease nationalist concerns about incoming foreigners. Here in the U.S., expect the issue of refugees to remain an important issue in the Presidential race (which I think Clinton will win over Rubio).
South Sudan and CAR stabilize, Syria and Burundi don’t
There is good reason to believe the Central African Republic will get better – especially if the elections go well. Some of the problems that contributed to the current fighting and political crisis are unresolved, but a path forward does seem possible.
South Sudan is essentially in the opposite position. The divisions between the President and his opponents are wide. And both sides are not doing a good job honoring the ceasefire they signed. After a series of failed attempts, resolution feels far off. I think that something will come together in 2016. I have no idea how or really why I am willing to make this prediction, but I am hopeful some deal is reached.
Unfortunately for Burundi, it appears matters are only getting worse. Warnings about widespread violence have been virtually ignored. The U.N. can barely get its act together to mount a peacekeeping operation or do anything of substance. Same goes for the African Union, which is at an important inflection point regarding if it should intervene. I think it won’t and Burundi will get worse.
Syria is the same story, but with more international involvement and a scary terrorist organization. World leaders cannot come up with a real plan to deal with President Bashar al-Assad. Bickering will return as the threat of the Islamic State diminishes over the year.
Ebola is down, but not out
Guinea was just declared Ebola-free. But we already saw such declarations in Sierra Leone and Liberia, followed by the discovery of cases. Health workers in the three countries have mounted a heroic effort to beat back the deadly virus, but the countries lack the ability to maintain tracking for cases on a continuing basis.
We will see small pockets of Ebola in the countries throughout the year. Each time the countries will track down people who came in contact with those infected, isolate any potential or real cases, treat the sick, and prevent Ebola’s spread. There will be no major outbreaks like what was seen last year, but the cycle of some cases emerging will persist.
Drought strikes East Africa, worse in Sahel
El Nino is making for some wacky weather. Though we finally got snow in New England, it has been a mild winter so far. Then there are the floods across South America, snow in Texas, and drought in Africa.
Right now, the dry weather is making for a worrisome situation in southern and eastern Africa. Ethiopia is a particular concern with people harkening back to its deadly famine 30 years ago that may be best remembered for Kevin Carter’s iconic photo of a starving child and the LiveAid concert. The government is downplaying the potential for famine while donors are making moves to provide support in order to avert a major humanitarian problem.
The relatively early response and the ability of Ethiopia to better deal with drought will mitigate the human toll of the drought. But on the other side of Africa, along the dry belt that extends across from the west called the Sahel, dry weather will be a major problem.
Famine is not a likely outcome, but the Sahel region is made up of countries that are not as well prepared to support their citizens after experiencing poor food harvests. Add to that the fact that a lot more money is needed as compared to other areas and most resources will be devoted to the refugee crisis. It adds up to a major problem if the rains do not come. Headlines will soon warn of millions of people on the brink of hunger. Similar warnings in recent years were not fully heeded, but the worst predictions were not realized. This year, it will be bad.
The end of Polio and Guinea Worm
Let’s end with some good news. With regards to health, 2016 will be as historic year. Two diseases will be eradicated. It may spill over into 2017 before official declarations are made, but Guinea Worm and Polio will be a thing of the past and the last cases will take place in 2016.
The eradication of both is as good as a sure thing – particularly Guinea Worm. And thanks to the heroic effort of vaccination volunteers in Pakistan, polio is on its way out as well. By the end of the year, we will look back with pride at the astounding achievements.