After the shocks of 2016, the world risks turning inwards. Here’s how that can be avoided
Simon O’Connell, Executive Director, Mercy Corps Europe
It’s late 2026 and positivity is in short supply. Around the world, countries have turned in on themselves. Protectionist and isolationist policies have curtailed global growth, sustainable progress and prosperity, whilst disparities in wealth have continued to increase year on year. Pockets of fragility have deepened and become hotbeds of unrest. Progress on solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges, including food security, healthcare and low-carbon technology, has stalled due to reduced investment and a lack of exchange of ideas and technology. Several virulent disease outbreaks have occurred, sparking pandemics that the walls we have built around ourselves are powerless to contain.
In the political realm, global bodies and institutions have broken down. We live in fear of foreign attack in a suspicious, dog-eat-dog climate. Job security is increasingly tenuous and terms of employment are frequently exploitative. Governance has worsened in many places with loss of faith in democracy. Trade wars have escalated and although global GDP is still going up slowly, other more meaningful measures of wellbeing put the global majority worse off than they were in 2016. Climate targets have been missed and it’s still getting hotter.
Looking back from 2026, 2016 is seen as a watershed year. Of course, the roots lie deeper, but 2016 was the moment when longstanding disaffection crystallised into something tangible, and changed the shape of global politics. It was the year when an overwhelming disaffection was expressed by millions of people in Western society who felt they had been excluded from the benefits of globalization — or globalism — and ignored by all kinds of elites who didn’t understand them — or worse, didn’t care much.
But, we can still avoid such a troubled future. 2016 can still be the year we choose a path of compassion and inclusion over fear and division.
Working for Mercy Corps, I am fortunate enough to meet with people from all over the world, from different cultures, backgrounds and perspectives — many of them living in extreme poverty or engulfed by conflict. Everywhere we work, in more than 40 countries, I see leaders and visionaries who seek to unite rather than divide — people who demonstrate that we do not have to follow the rhetoric of hostility and division, and show it is possible to create a new dialogue based on principles of honesty, humility and compassion. They include Gazans in an isolated pocket of the globe forging international business relationships and young Kenyans building bridges between communities. They show us a future in which the voices of people in emerging economies are listened to, and new connections are made — not just between traditional partners but across a complex global network of relationships in our multi-polar world.
We must live these principles in our own societies. This year’s seismic events in Europe and the US show us how we must do better at listening to the thoughts and differing opinions of people in our own communities, empowering those who do care about making the world a better place, now and for their children — reducing inequity of opportunity, ineffective governance and a growing disparity between elites and the rest. My organisation’s objective — to ensure no-one is excluded from global prosperity and opportunity — is as relevant now as it ever was, but oftentimes we have failed to acknowledge the need to address this in Europe and the US as well.
We have a responsibility to do better; to find ways to have much more inclusive, less polarised dialogue, based on principles of shared societies and respect for others. Those of us in civil society — also sometimes part of established elites — have a responsibility here. It is our role to bridge divides and to find the common ground between apparently different groups.
Our world is in many ways more complex and interconnected than ever before, and we need to treat it as such. We must stop the simplistic thinking and generalisations around north and south, developed and developing, the West and the rest. Mainstream media platforms need to more honestly and accurately communicate the complexity and fluidity of this new political reality — moving away from polarised left or right perspectives and avoiding the lumping of demographic groups or sectors into one-dimensional, homogenous boxes. Our political institutions must also respond by becoming more nimble and responsive, reflective of a greater fluidity in political party affiliation and diversity of opinion. Democracy does not begin and end with voting — it is an ongoing process of engagement and inclusion, and in too many places institutions are not keeping pace with modern lifestyles and technologies.
Most importantly, the responsibility lies with all of us as individuals — to resist the temptation to turn inwards or lash out at others. Perhaps it takes moments in history as we’ve seen in 2016 to prompt us to refocus on what brings us together. The late Leonard Cohen sang of how the cracks let the light in. Let’s not focus on the darkness — rather a brightness that’s always there on the horizon.
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Originally published at weforum.org.