Recently the World Economic Forum released their list of top 10 Global Risks for the next 10 years. While climate and environmental risks top the list, societal risks have also featured in the report and ranked above some of the major environmental and economic concerns.
What does this mean; What are "societal risks"; and what does this mean in context of India are some of the questions I will be discussing in this post.
About the report by World Economic Forum
World Economic Forum is an international NGO based in Switzerland and views itself as an organization that provides a space to bring prominent world leaders together to discuss on issues which are globally relevant.
It hosts an annual meeting which is attended by around 3000 members and also publishes a number of reports about the pressing issues of the world. One such report is the annual Global Risks Report which publishes the results of Global Risks Perception Survey (GPRS). Despite some criticism, the World Economic Forum is a leading organization that contributes in analysis of the global situation and initiation of discussions on topics of concern.
The Global Risks Report 2022 was published on 11th January. The report highlighted the effects of COVID-19 pandemic, the risks that have emerged or have become more prominent because of it and 10 major risks that the the world is currently facing.
Of these 10 major risks, climate action failure topped the list with experts signaling that in the next 10 years environmental risks like “climate action failure”, “extreme weather”, and “biodiversity loss” will be the most critical issues. Despite the regular demands, policy updates, global pledges, and discussions around climate change, the actions taken have been underwhelming.
However, what seemed to be a more of an immediate concern were societal risks. The report highlighted that:
GRPS perceive societal risks—in the form of “social cohesion erosion”, “livelihood crises” and “mental health deterioration”—as those that have worsened the most since the pandemic began.
The current pandemic has brought with it a mental health crisis along with social, economic and geopolitical crisis. Adding to it the context of environmental crisis the compounding effects point to the need of actions which integrate individual needs with social realities, economic factors and environmental factors and is targeted at the divides which have emerged between and within countries.
Examining some major Societal Risks
Societal Risks have a much direct effect on an individual and their well being. It is imperative that while the economic, technological, geopolitical and environmental risks are explored in detail, societal risks and their impacts should also be highlighted. This is especially true for practitioners in the field of mental health for as is clear from numerous reports including this one, there is a mental health crisis which has emerged. Not only mental health deterioration a direct risk, almost all the mentioned societal risks will contribute to rising cases with very specific issues that would need addressing.
Another societal risk which features in the top 10 is that of livelihood crisis. With the pandemic causing lockdown and economic stress the loss of livelihood has become a common reality. This will put the wellbeing of individuals especially those who are already struggling with finances at grave risk.
Structural deterioration of work prospects and/or standards for the working-age population: unemployment, underemployment, lower wages, fragile contracts, erosion of worker rights etc. Definition of Livelihood Crisis: Global Risks Report, 2022
In India, if we recall the mass migration of workers back to their hometowns during the first lockdown, it becomes clear that much of this livelihood loss is undocumented. Reports from last year showed that there was a sharp increase in unemployment and the recovery was uneven especially for females (click here ). However, critical action is yet to be taken.
Social Cohesion Erosion
Judith Maxwell in 1996 gave a comprehensive definition of social cohesion as: "building shared values and communities of interpretation, reducing disparities in wealth and income, and generally enabling people to have a sense that they are engaged in a common enterprise, facing shared challenges, and that they are members of the same community"
According to the report the already existing disparities in the society will increase. This is especially true for economic disparity as those communities which were grappling poverty pre-pandemic will face a worse-off situations while those which had better access to resources will regain their wealth. This is likely to cause increased polarization and resentment.
Loss of social capital and a fracture of social networks negatively impacting social stability, individual well-being and economic productivity as a result of persistent public anger, distrust, divisiveness, lack of empathy, marginalization of minorities, political polarization etc.
Definition of Social Cohesion Erosion: Global Risks Report 2022
In the recent past, some authors have suggested that there is a global move towards fascism. While the veracity of the statement may not be easy to determine, it can be seen that racism and discrimination against minorities is on the rise. This can also be noted in India where reports of caste based and religion based crimes seem to be increasing. Such divides are causing an erosion of social cohesion. The idea of inclusion of different identities and ideologies seems to be obsolete and while this could be a global risk, it is one which India needs to be aware of, examine, and take action against.
We are all seeing the third wave of the highly infectious COVID-19. While there is a rising concern of the health impact of this virus, there are predictions of more variants and even newer types of bacteria or viruses that may emerge (an effect of lack of action towards the environment).
The spread of diseases cause widespread disruption across the world and severely impact mental health of an individual. The current pandemic has also seen a rising health crisis because of the reduced focus on other diseases due to preoccupation with COVID.
Massive and rapid spread of viruses, parasites, fungi or bacteria that cause an uncontrolled contagion of infectious diseases, resulting in an epidemic or pandemic with loss of life and economic disruption Definition of Infectious Diseases: Global Risks Report 2022
This needs to be directly connected to the state and availability of healthcare services and workers in different countries. In India, there has been an undue increase in demands of healthcare workers but the actions taken to improve their state or in some cases agree to their demands such as that of regulating the exams and results has been underwhelming.
Mental Health Deterioration
The report highlights the effect of pandemic on mental health. However, almost all the factors including the societal risks mentioned above, the technological risks (eg: digital inequality), and environmental risks (eg: rise in pollution, extreme weather etc) are cumulatively affecting the well being and mental health of the individuals.
Pervasiveness of mental health ailments and/or disorders globally and across multiple demographics, negatively impacting well-being, social cohesion and productivity: anxiety, dementia, depression, loneliness, stress etc. Definition of Mental health Deterioration: Global Risks Report 2022
The condition can be considered more worrisome because mental health deterioration is still not considered an actual phenomenon in some countries. Especially in India, the almost collective trauma like state due to COVID-19 pandemic is not being talked about or focused upon as strongly as the need is. There are rare mentions of mental health in the mainstream politics or news. Further, areas like child mental health are often ignored.
While policies mention the need of well-trained counselors, the training efforts, the hiring, and value placed on counselors is extremely less. This has given rise to a situation where people need mental health interventions but do not have access to counselors for the latter are present but unemployed or employed at little value. Unless strong policy decisions are taken, India will be grappling with a generation who will lose touch with resilience and youth which will have their health compromised.
What are top 5 risks for India in the report?
Interestingly, for India, Climate Change which is the largest global risk does not feature in top five risks for India. In fact, issues like health, unemployment, or terrorism also do not feature as the top risks in the coming years. The risks mentioned are more geopolitical, economic, societal, and technological.
India is currently reeling under multiple political crisis along with the health crisis of COVID-19. It can in fact be seen in the nature of risks that these are concerns emerging out of issues in governance.
Table: Showing the definition of top 5 Risks for India as defined in WEF report 2022
Fracture of Interstate Relations
Economic, political and/or technological rivalries between geopolitical powers resulting in a fracture of bilateral relations and/or growing tensions
Debt crises in large economies
Corporate and/or public finances overwhelmed by debt accumulation and/or debt servicing in large economies, resulting in mass bankruptcies, defaults, insolvency, liquidity crises or sovereign debt crises
Widespread youth disillusionment
Youth disengagement, lack of confidence and/or loss of trust of existing economic, political and social structures at a global scale, negatively impacting social stability, individual well-being and economic productivity
Failure of technology governance
Lack of globally accepted frameworks, institutions or regulations for the use of critical digital networks and technology, as a result of different states or groups of states adopting incompatible digital infrastructure, protocols and/or standards
Fractured and/or unequal access to critical digital networks and technology, between and within countries, as a result of unequal investment capabilities, lack of necessary skills in the workforce, insufficient purchase power, government restrictions and/or cultural differences
More and more reports in India point towards the inability of the central government to deliver on their promises of development. In fact recent news reports have highlighted the large debt waivers for companies, rise in communal sentiments, dissatisfaction in various factions of the population and a widespread mishandling of the pandemic. In such a scenario youth disillusionment is inevitable. It can be predicted that without major changes in the governance India will be headed to a future which is worrisome.
The need of the Hour
Across the world and especially in a country like India, the need of the hour is to examine these concerns and generate solutions both at the macro policy level and micro ground level. This can serve as a call to various groups such as economists, public health servants, politicians, and technology experts to collaborate and develop solutions which can mitigate some of these risks.
These solutions need to be such that they integrate individual needs with the needs of the community and the country and can work in a manner which is inclusive of various factions of a diverse country like India. Economic markers like GDP while important are not enough anymore and a focus on the state of individuals as well as systems that are present in the country is required.