It’s Kevin here, with a brand-new Wednesday Signal. Willis, Alex, Gabe and I are off to celebrate Independence Day, but before we gorge ourselves with hamburgers and hotdogs, we wanted to leave you with some independence-themed food for thought.
Below, we ponder the next big global push for self-rule, describe a breakaway movement that no one wants and will never be, and examine the momentous progress in delivering freedom from hunger and poverty around the world. We’ve also got your usual hard numbers, plus a quiz for all you independent-minded readers out there.
CATCH A WAVE: INDEPENDENCE EDITION
Over the past century, three major waves of independence have given rise to many of the 195 countries that exist today.
The first came in the period around World War One, when the collapse of the Ottoman, Habsburg, German, and Russian empires spawned new nation states in Central and Eastern Europe.
The second broke in the years after World War Two, when dozens of African and Asian countries won their independence — in some cases after a fierce fight — from the dying British and French empires.
The most recent wave arrived in 1991, as the dissolution of the USSR spawned 15 new former Soviet Republics. (To our Latin American readers, we aren’t disregarding you — it’s just that the collapse of the Spanish and Portuguese empires happened more than a century ago.)
Where and how will the next wave hit? Here at Signal, we think there’s a strong case to be made that cities may give rise to the next big independence push.
- Urban areas are already home to more than half the world’s population and produce 80 percent of global GDP — a figure that will grow as millions more people join the burgeoning ranks of the world’s city-dwellers in coming decades.
- The urban-rural divide is growing more prominent in global politics: think London versus the English countryside, which were sharply opposed to each other over Brexit, or pro-immigrant US sanctuary cities versus rural voters who tend to look more skeptically on immigration.
- Cities are increasingly on the front lines of dealing with transnational issues like climate change, health, migration, and terrorism, and have begun to cooperate more with each other along all of these lines.
- Cities’ dynamic economies and more manageable size also means they’re arguably better-positioned to capture the benefits — and manage the downsides — of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence.
The widening urban-rural divide could eventually push cities to seek a greater degree of independence, but national governments will resist giving up too much ground. We’re curious what you think: What would it take for global cities to become city-states? What are some other potential waves of independence that you can think of? Let us know here.
THE INDEPENDENCE NO ONE REALLY WANTS
There are those who’d love to see an independent Scotland, Catalonia, Greenland, Kurdistan, Western Sahara, Kashmir, or Tamil Eelam. Then there are those “calls for independence” that no one really wants. Take Donetsk and Luhansk, in eastern Ukraine.
Some background: During the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv against the Kremlin-dominated then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Russia tried to stop Ukraine from forming new political, economic and security ties with the West. In April 2014, a month after Russia seized Crimea, pro-Russian militias grabbed sections of both Donetsk and Luhansk, two provinces in eastern Ukraine that lie along the Russian border. Ukraine’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, sent in troops. Moscow backed the rebels.
A month later, breakaway groups in the two provinces, claiming the backing of voters, declared their independence and agreed to merge their “governments” into a confederation called Novorossiya, or New Russia. They had Moscow’s backing, but not its official recognition. Then, in September 2014, Ukraine and Russia agreed to the Minsk peace plan, which has created a political deadlock that’s still in place today. The provinces are neither fully independent nor entirely part of Ukraine.
Here’s the thing:
Russia doesn’t want this independence. To stop Ukraine’s move toward the EU and NATO, President Putin wants to force a new constitution on the country that would give regional governments like Donetsk and Luhansk — and, by extension, Moscow — a veto over Ukraine’s national foreign and trade policy. Donetsk and Luhansk remain Putin’s foothold in Ukraine. If they became independent, Putin would have much less leverage with Kyiv.
Ukraine doesn’t want this independence. Knowing what Putin wants, it might seem appealing for Ukraine to just let go of these two provinces, and the bills and headaches that come with them. But no Ukrainian president has the political power to do it. Many Ukrainians consider Donetsk and Luhansk to be Ukrainian land that must never be surrendered. After all, thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have lost their lives there.
The separatists don’t really want this independence. Sure, some do. But those who understand their predicament know that Donetsk and Luhansk can’t enjoy security and prosperity without active, consistent Russian backing, preferably as part of Russia. They aren’t economically viable on their own.
The result is a stalemate that offers a reminder about the challenges and mixed promises of calls for independence.
A message from Microsoft:
The Day The Horse Lost Its Job: A Technology Lesson from 1922
Technological transitions can have vast and sometimes challenging implications. But as the story of the horse and buggy suggests, new technologies can also improve people’s lives in immeasurable ways. In this installment of Today in Technology, we look to the past as we consider how to think about the changing technology of tomorrow. Visit → Today in Technology
THE MOST BASIC FORM OF INDEPENDENCE
In politics we tend to think of independence in the context of freedom from the control of others. But the ability of people to live happy, productive lives is its own form of independence. America’s founders called it “the pursuit of happiness”; US President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of “freedom from want,” and it’s one of the under-reported “good” news stories of our time.
Worldwide, the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day — the World Bank’s threshold for the poorest of the poor — has fallen by more than half since 1990. That’s largely due to millions of people escaping extreme poverty in China and, more recently, in India, where a combination of strong economic growth and more targeted programs, such as rural electrification, more efficient benefits payments, and a push to give millions access to basic financial services is lifting an average of 44 people out of the ranks of the world’s poorest every minute.
It’s not all good news, though. As we pointed out last week, a recent analysisby Brookings showed that globally, the world’s worst-off are increasingly concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. Nigeria recently overtook India as home of the most people living in dire poverty, and the Democratic Republic of Congo is on track to take the No 2 spot soon.
Here are some of the factors that will shape the evolution of global poverty:
Fewer easy gains: China and India’s massive populations are served by governments that, even if they are inefficient or occasionally corrupt, are still able to deliver basic security and increase access to economic opportunities for their people. No leader in Nigeria’s modern history has managed to tackle the country’s rampant public graft, and the DRC is effectively a failed state. Extreme poverty may be falling overall, but the countries where it is the biggest problem today are also more politically dysfunctional.
Climate change: India may be a budding success story, but with 600 million people in the country already facing the prospect of acute water shortages, and the UN forecasting 200 million climate refugees around the world by 2050, it would be a mistake to take recent progress for granted.
Technology-related disruption: The steady replacement of manual labor by machines has arguably done more to create wealth and free people from a life of poverty and drudgery than any other phenomenon. But will that trend still hold in an age of artificial intelligence? Countries in sub-Saharan Africa that have been waiting for their turn to enjoy the spoils of manufacturing-driven growth could miss out if robots end up taking more jobs than they create.
None of this takes away from the huge strides made against extreme poverty in recent decades, but it does suggest that further gains will be harder to come by. Despite recent progress, an estimated 640 million-plus people around the world who subsist on less than $1.90 a day have yet to achieve the most basic form of independence. Something for us all to consider as we tuck into our Independence Day barbecues.
The United States celebrates its independence on July 4, marking the day in 1776 when the thirteen colonies served up the Declaration of Independence to the British crown. Here’s a pop quiz on the birthdays of a few other countries. Answers below.
- This country, which celebrates its independence just five days after the US, is the world’s newest country, gaining sovereignty from its northern neighbor in 2011 after decades of ethnic and sectarian strife. After just two years of independence, internal power struggles plunged it into its own horrific civil war.
- Amid rising tensions with its Mexican rulers, in part over the number of undocumented Americans it was allowing in, this territory declared itself an independent republic in 1836, and held its ground after a brief but brutal war of independence fought largely by American mercenaries.
- During the Napoleonic wars, this colony was actually the capital-in-exile of the European empire that ruled it. When some of the royal family refused to go back to Europe afterwards, the stage was set for a declaration of independence in 1822.
- On June 12, 1990 this country declared independence from the Soviet Union, but assumed most of the old empire’s military assets, international treaty obligations, and debts.
Answers: 1. South Sudan, 2. Texas, 3. Brazil, 4. Russia
HARD NUMBERS: INDEPENDENCE, INDEPENDENTS, AND (IN)DEPENDS
5: Just five countries — Timor-Leste (May 2002), Serbia (June 2006), Montenegro (June 2006), Kosovo (February 2008), and South Sudan (July 2011) — have gained independence since the turn of the century. Who will be next?
75: Globally, a median of 75 percent of people surveyed across 38 nations agree that it’s never acceptable for a news organization to favor one political party over another. India is the only country where more people said such favoritism is sometimes acceptable than those who suggested it should never occur. #MediaIndepenence
9: The percentage of American voters describing themselves as “independent” actually increased by around 9 percent between 1990 and today — from 29 percent to 38 percent. Yet at the same time the ideological gap between self-described Republicans and Democrats has widened substantially.
1.4 billion: The market for adult diapers in Japan, which already pulls in around $1.4 billion in yearly revenue, is expected to surpass that for babies by the year 2020, due to the country’s large elderly population. #InDepends
This edition of Signal was prepared with editorial support from Gabe Lipton (@gflipton) and Leon Levy (@leonmlevy). Spiritual counsel from Alex Kliment and Willis Sparks. Give a friend the Signal here.