Global development's winners and losers of 2016

Was 2016 really the worst year ever? Here are a few of the actors, ideas and priorities that had a particularly good — or bad — run of it the past 12 months.

2016 has been a tumultuous year. Man-made crises, natural disasters, rising temperatures, and political hostility tested the global development community’s commitment and creativity to forge new solutions for a world in transition. On social media, 2016 has acquired a plethora of memes declaring it the worst year ever, and indeed, at times it has been trying.

But while it is true that real people have suffered and important causes have seen setbacks, the challenges have also reaffirmed the aid community’s commitment to keep moving forward. The tumult imparted costs and uncertainty — but it also provoked leadership and resolve to ensure that decades of progress in combating poverty and disease aren’t lost to the winds of change.

The Syrian conflict continues to produce images and accounts of humanity at its worst. Yet it has also drawn the sharp edge of heroism — health workers who continue to administer care despite the knowledge that the hospitals where they work have been painted with targets; teachers who fight to keep classrooms open amid the bombing.

The global development community will grapple with a new and evolving geopolitical landscape in 2017, but the new year is also a time to take stock. Here are a few of the actors, ideas, and priorities that emerged from 2016 as winners — or losers.

Global development’s 2016 winners:

1. Cities.

While national and international institutions around the world struggled to keep pace with change, the world’s cities and their leaders took more steps to solidify their status as centers of action for sustainable development. The first Habitat summit in 20 years — Habitat III — brought urban leaders to Quito, Ecuador in October to launch a New Urban Agenda, which endorses an “urban paradigm shift” that “readdresses the way governments plan, finance, develop, govern and manage cities.”

Mayors and local leaders proved critical to sustaining climate momentum at COP22 in Marrakech, after Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory cast doubts over U.S. national climate policy. “Cities, businesses and citizens will continue reducing emissions, because they have concluded ... that doing so is in their own self-interest,” said U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2017 Devex will convene a global conversation about the future of smart cities for global development. Stay tuned.

2. Solar power.

The cost of solar panels has fallen 80 percent since 2010, according to the International Energy Agency. Solar energy has gotten increasingly cheaper and is now the lowest-priced option for new electricity production in many developing countries.

The last few years witnessed a turning point, with more new energy production happening in renewables than in fossil fuels. New payment and distribution models — such as pay as you go solar panels — have emerged to help enable access to renewable power at the bottom of the pyramid. These trends have led to some bold and hopeful predictions.

The Indian government, for example, said it will exceed its — already very ambitious — Paris climate agreement target for renewable energy by half, generating 57 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2027.

At COP22, the Climate Vulnerable Forum — a group of 48 countries expected to experience the harshest impacts of climate change — adopted a vision to meet 100 percent domestic renewable energy production by 2050.

3. National development finance institutions.

Development finance institutions received top billing in the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which called on donors to leverage aid resources into private sector investment in order to reach the precipitous $2.5 trillion target. Donors across Europe are responding enthusiastically. Finland, Spain, Belgium, Switzerland and France are recapitalizing their DFIs, many increasing budgets by more than 100 percent. The United Kingdom’s investment arm, the CDC, is on track to quadruple its ceiling for investment early next year to $8 billion.

Questions remain about whether DFI capacity for impact evaluation and accountability is keeping pace, but the critiques don’t appear to be slowing growth in the sector. Also in question are DFIs’ frequent use of more obscure financial environments, including tax havens, as revealed in the so-called Panama Papers leaks. Still, private investment is on the rise, and donors are keen to make it work. The Overseas Development Institute and Center for Strategic and International Studies reported in 2016 that private investment funds are on track to outstrip official development assistance in as little as 10 years.

4. Disaster response and preparedness.

Cyclone Winston, Hurricane Matthew and the Aceh earthquake were just some of the natural disasters that devastated some of the poorest economies in 2016. According to the World Disasters Report, released by the Red Cross in October, climate change will increase the numbers of natural disasters worldwide, with the Asia-Pacific region suffering the greatest impacts in terms of cost and lives lost. But this year also saw strong funding and increased programmatic focus on building communities that will be better equipped to prepare and respond to future natural disasters.

The Asian Development Bank, for example, told Devex about its increased funding to tackle climate-related impacts in the Asia-Pacific: funding for more resilient infrastructure, climate-smart agriculture, innovative technologies, preparedness for weather-related disasters and mitigation programs will be key investments in the coming years.

In Australia, emergency and humanitarian response was among the few winners to garner more financing in the 2016 aid budget. And the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave almost $13 million in grants to emergency response programs in 2016. As Peter Walton, international director for Red Cross Australia, explained to Devex, NGOs are making “pretty significant” shifts toward disaster-related programs particularly in the Asia-Pacific.

Global development’s 2016 losers:

1. Mosquitoes.

The global effort to eradicate malaria got a boost at the beginning of 2016, when U.S. President Barack Obama plugged the fight against the killer disease in his final State of the Union address. “Right now, we are on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS, and we have the capacity to accomplish the same thing with malaria,” he said. The president’s comments speak to a global health effort at a critical juncture — perched between solid success and the opportunity to eliminate the disease entirely.

This year Sri Lanka did just that, joining Kyrgyzstan as the newest countries to be named malaria-free in 2016. The country’s eradication experience showed the intense commitment that will be required for other countries to move from controlling malaria to defeating it. Donors will have to step up to. While countries have scaled up malaria interventions in recent years, funding on an international scale has flatlined — and a few hot spots with failing systems, such as Venezuela, threaten to roll back progress. While the Zika virus remains a major concern for countries in the Western hemisphere, the outbreak has also seen a host of new tools deployed. Some of them, such as the Gates-supported effort to render virus-transmitting mosquitos sterile, have taken direct aim at the world’s deadliest animal.

2. International humanitarian law.

2016 saw some of the worst violations of humanitarian law in the post-World War II era, with multiple attacks against hospitals, aid workers and civilians — many of them happening in the midst of Syria’s bloody conflict. Government forces deliberately targeted medical and humanitarian facilities with air strikes there, despite the international legal protections afforded these places as neutral spaces for lifesaving care. Hundreds of health workers have died as a result of eroding norms, and the international community has so far proven itself incapable of holding violators accountable.

“In Syria, the most dangerous places to be are a hospital or an ambulance,” a doctor at an MSF-supported facility told the organization.

While the World Humanitarian Summit in May focused on bridging the gap between humanitarian and development interventions and greater political commitment to funding and reform, a lack of attention to civilian protections and humanitarian law left some attendees disappointed.

3. EU development cooperation.

Who or whatever is to blame for Britain’s departure from the European Union, analysts on both sides of the Brexit debate argue that the EU, the world’s largest aid donor, isn’t evolving fast enough. Aid veteran and consultant Simon Maxwell wrote just after the referendum that Brexit could be just what the doctor ordered for spurring EU reform, ushering in a “different” kind of EU development assistance, in the shape of “a smaller aid program, a shrunken market, reduced security assets, smaller diplomatic footprint.” Maxwell asks, “Will EU development cooperation necessarily become more African and neighborhood-focused, for example? Will it have to spend more on humanitarian assistance?”

The new EU development consensus, due out next year, will provide some clarity and will spell out the EU’s stated plans to “explore the links between development and security,” European Union High Representative and Vice President Federica Mogherini announced on Nov. 21. Instruments such as the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and the External Action Service, both criticized for using aid to stymy migration to Europe, may offer some clues about what will come of the commission’s review of financial instruments, also due in 2017.

4. Refugee and migrant rights.

2016 was the deadliest year on record for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe, with 4,901 reported dead or missing this year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Even with the world’s attention focused on the Syrian conflict and on the plight of people fleeing from that and other disasters, international agreement and action to resettle refugees and to improve security along the routes many of them take has fallen short. France closed the Calais refugee camp known as the jungle, and a deal between the EU and Turkey for refugee relocation sparked humanitarian concerns.

As a centerpiece of the United Nations General Assembly in September, two forums convened in New York to boost support for the world’s 65 million displaced people and for those who choose to move for greater opportunity. The Summit on Migrants and Refugees and the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees combined a statement of principles with policy and financial commitments to respond to a degree of human mobility that has surpassed many countries’ willingness to accommodate. But these pledges are a far cry from the comprehensive international cooperation that is needed to make migration and displacement a less treacherous prospect for people on the move.

Who do you think had an especially good — or bad — 2016? Leave your additions in the comments section below.

Molly Anders and Lisa Cornish contributed to this article.

Devex is taking a holiday break next week. We’ll be back on January 3 with more must-read global development news, analysis and insight. Read more international development news online, and subscribe to the Development Newswire.

About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.