What 2012 can Learn from 2011

01/11/2012 12:07 EST | Updated 03/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Those convinced that 2012 will be the year of an apocalypse have some grounds for thinking so, at least if events in 2011 are any indication. We have witnessed a global wave of economic, social, and political indignation, in many ways without precedence. In addition to the European Union's existential challenge, we have simultaneously experienced the Arab awakenings, riots in the UK, India's anti-corruption movements, growing numbers of Chinese protests, anti-Putin demonstrations in Russia, and Occupy Wall Street movements in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere. No geographic region has been exempt.

While each set of events can generally be explained in terms of local conditions, one could also conclude that all are symptomatic of larger global forces at play, namely, the unrealized expectations of people, and a growing perception that gaps in income and material well-being are widening to unacceptable levels. Add to this that the world is now in a period of profound uncertainty, especially around the pace, direction, and sustainability of today's dominant economic model, and it is little wonder that people are deeply worried.

Indeed, it has become almost axiomatic for serious analysts of world affairs to acknowledge that we are today part of an historically unprecedented transformation which includes geo-political power shifts, accelerated technological transformation raising youth expectations globally, and economic development creating a new international middle class, intensifying demand for the planet's finite natural resources.

Reality, however, is much more complex than this. Indeed, some would argue that many of these emerging trends will ultimately prove positive -- reduced levels of absolute poverty in certain parts of the world, the demise of dictators in others, and more generally, a re-evaluation of the almost sole reliance on economic growth as the basis for progress.

In fact, one could just as readily conclude that 2011 was a year of global reawakening -- a positive turning point in history where critical masses of citizens, interlinked and fed by new forms of technology, demanded that their governments do more to meet their economic, political, and environmental aspirations.

What would seem common to both the pessimists and the optimists, however, is a growing sense of uncertainty and fear of unintended consequence, especially as concerns the global economy. New risks and opportunities are emerging as a different set of economic and political powers begin to assert themselves and the established economies find themselves in relatively weakened positions.

Some see these risks as nationally threatening, needing to be dealt with aggressively through nationally conceived and targeted public policies such as stronger controls on immigration or higher levels of trade protection. Others see them as more threatening to the global commons -- the environment and global warming, international health, global financial flows, and weapons proliferation -- with today's international institutions perceived as ill-equipped to deal with these new order risks.

Indeed some suggest forebodingly that rather than entering a time when global problems can be more effectively dealt with by an emerging G20, we have instead entered a "G Zero" world where there is no collective security in a globalized economy (Roubini in "The Instability of Inequality").

Where does this leave governments and makers of public policy? How can they best respond to these uncertainties and should they respond to them as risks or opportunities? How best to avoid the unintended consequences, such as the U.S. government failed to do in Iraq, failed to do in deregulating its financial sector, or as many governments have failed to do in almost single-mindedly promoting growth at the expense of equity?

As in any scientific field -- natural or the social -- it is vital that one has a deep understanding of why developments are evolving as they are, what factors are contributing to particular outcomes, and what options are available to achieve desirable results.

Assuming that most governments are interested in social harmony and political stability, both nationally and globally, the question they should be asking themselves is how to best achieve those outcomes in their own political, social, and economic context?

They need to start by basing public policy on solid research into what measures will produce desired outcomes in increasingly complex and globalized environments. At the same time, governments need to recognize that their playing field is less and less a national one, and that in an increasingly inter-linked world, the strategies for achieving desired outcomes must include multinational approaches which respond to the needs of multiple actors. In today's globalized world, other than in sports, success can rarely be defined in zero-sum terms.

This means that increasingly, public policy research must be looking forward 10-20 years or more, anticipating both emerging threats and opportunities. It also means taking into account the collective concerns of the key global stakeholders -- the emerging economies, the low-income countries many of which are fragile, and potential threats to regional and global stability -- as well as the so-called developed economies.

Collaborative research by think tanks representative of each of these groups, producing policy options satisfactory to all, is the surest route to outcomes which can effectively mitigate emerging global risks and responsibly exploit new opportunities for the largest number of people.

As a nation seeking to redefine its role globally and at the same time possessing rich traditions of multilateral engagement and evidence-based policy, Canada has the opportunity to be a leader in positively reshaping our world for the next generation.

Joseph K. Ingram is the president of The North-South Institute, an independent international development think tank based in Ottawa