- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
CFR editors asked six fellows to share the charts, graphs, and maps that show some of the most pressing trends to follow in 2022 and beyond, such as COVID-19 vaccine distribution and global adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) policies.
COVID-19 Vaccine Pledges and Politics
Donor countries are expected to give roughly three-quarters of the nearly 2.7 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses they have pledged so far to recipient countries in 2022. Although these doses alone will not close the enormous vaccination gap between developed and developing countries, they can make a significant difference provided they go where vaccines are needed most. Yet, while most major donor nations, such as the United States and China, have indicated their pledges are intended solely to address vaccine inequity, distribution trends suggest that strategic and diplomatic considerations could be playing a more influential role.
Countries in the Asia-Pacific have received a disproportionate amount of vaccines: about half of all donated doses. Just four nations have received more than one-quarter of those doses: Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Vietnam. Bhutan, Malaysia, Morocco, and Sri Lanka continue to receive donations despite having fully vaccinated more than 60 percent of their people. Cambodia, the tenth-largest recipient of doses, has fully vaccinated 78 percent of its population and begun re-donating shots elsewhere in Asia. Although the United States, China, and Europe have all pledged to increase their donations to Africa in 2022, COVID-19 vaccine donations overall will continue to favor the same regions that already benefited disproportionately from gifted doses, with 50 percent of outstanding vaccine donations earmarked for Asian nations.
Conversely, there are forty-two low- and middle-income countries, representing 1.1 billion people, that have collectively received enough donations to fully vaccinate just 10 percent of their populations. To date, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Venezuela have only received enough to fully vaccinate 5 percent of their populations—less than what the World Health Organization estimates is necessary for the elderly and other high-risk populations. Only 27 percent of health workers in sub-Saharan Africa are vaccinated.
Thomas J. Bollyky is the senior fellow for global health, economics, and development, and the director of the Global Health program. Samantha Kiernan is the program coordinator for global health and contributed to this report.
Twenty-first-century China faces a massive demographic quandary. If current trends continue, declining fertility rates and a rapidly aging population will present planners in Beijing with a host of new challenges, including a shrinking labor force and a growing dependent population. But how acute these challenges become will hinge on China’s long-term total fertility rate (TFR).
The United Nations’ “medium-fertility” scenario for China’s population over the remainder of the century assumes a fertility rate similar to that of Sweden today (TFR 1.7). But if China’s long-term TFR ends up closer to that of others in East Asia—such as Japan (TFR 1.36), South Korea (TFR 0.92), and Taiwan (TFR 1.17)—as projected by the “low-fertility” model, the demographic imbalances grow. Under this model, median population age and elderly-to-youth ratios surge dramatically, while total population declines much more rapidly. And even that forecast could prove too optimistic. According to China’s 2020 census, the country’s birth rate has plunged to the lowest level since 1978, with a TFR hovering around 1.3. Should this decline continue in 2022 and beyond, China could have a TFR beneath that of the low-fertility model, forcing Beijing to confront the issues caused by demographic imbalances far earlier than anticipated.
Concerns over such issues have led to a series of major policy announcements by national and municipal authorities seeking to raise birth rates, including by lifting the cap on the number of children that couples can have from two to three, offering financial subsidies to encourage families to have additional children, and aggressively promoting marriage and family values.
Carl Minzner is the senior fellow for China Studies.
Venture Capital and the World of Unicorns
Venture-capital-backed technology businesses account for a rising share of the dynamism in advanced economies. In the United States, less than 1 percent of new firms receive venture backing, but they account for roughly half of the companies that do well enough to stage an initial public offering and about 90 percent of research and development (R&D) spending by companies that go public. Meanwhile, China also owes much of its economic growth to tech companies such as Alibaba Group, which was created with the help of venture capital. On the other hand, in Europe, a steady lack of venture investors helps explain the continent’s diminishing share of global output.
During the pandemic, venture funding has boomed globally. The United States has retained its lead, accounting for roughly half of total venture dollars invested worldwide. China comes second, reflecting its status as the world’s second-largest economy. The striking change is that other regions are catching up: the rest of Asia has grown fast, and so too has Europe.
The number of “unicorns”—privately held tech companies that investors value at $1 billion or more—offers another way to compare rival technology centers. Each unicorn creates dozens of wealthy employees with the resources and experience to found, finance, and assist the next generation of fast-growing companies. Again, the U.S. lead there remains impressive.
Sebastian Mallaby is the Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics.
The Future of Work
This past year, many companies faced a dilemma about whether or not to return to office (RTO). Though the coronavirus’s delta variant thwarted fully in-person RTO plans, the underlying question of what the future of work looks like remains, particularly as vaccination levels increase. The pandemic has accelerated trends toward more flexible work arrangements and encouraged workers to seek new jobs that better suit their needs and preferences. But workers and employers often diverge in their desires.
According to an August 2021 PwC survey of U.S. employees, most workers want the flexibility to work remotely part or all of the week as they juggle their work, home lives, caregiving responsibilities, and mental health. Meanwhile, employers’ plans vary widely, with some expecting all employees to work in person, some aiming for remote or hybrid arrangements, and most anticipating a mix of different policies for different staff. Several U.S. technology companies, such as Square, Twitter, and Coinbase Global, have embraced remote work and declared themselves remote first or fully remote.
These trends reveal a historic shift in the way Americans want to balance work and family life. The sooner employers understand and adjust to their employees’ desire for more flexibility—and recognize that COVID-19 was more of a catalyst in this regard rather than the determining factor—the faster society will arrive at the “new normal.”
Laura D. Taylor-Kale is the fellow for innovation and economic competitiveness.
Latin America’s Renewable Energy Push
Latin America and the Caribbean lead the world in hydroelectric and biofuel energy production, and the region is quickly harnessing its solar and wind potential. In 2019, several countries pledged to hit a target for 70 percent renewable energy use by 2030. Such an ambitious commitment from a part of the world that contributes less than 10 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions [PDF] demonstrates that Latin America is and will be an attractive environment for international investment in renewables.
Over the last decade, China and Europe have significantly outpaced the United States in renewable energy investments in Latin America and the Caribbean. The U.S. government has shown support for the renewables revolution via multilateral lenders, but public expenditures on a bilateral basis have stalled.
Given Latin America’s green aspirations, there are few regions in the world better positioned to take advantage of large-scale renewables financing. The Joe Biden administration would be wise to look for investment partners there as it attempts to reassert U.S. global leadership on climate change. As the United States prepares to host the Summit of the Americas in 2022, Washington’s prioritization of Latin America’s energy transformation could also help build goodwill in the hemisphere and turbocharge the region’s post-pandemic economic recovery.
Paul Angelo is the fellow for Latin America Studies.
Global Artificial Intelligence Strategies
Governments around the world are adopting AI. For tasks as disparate as using machine learning to analyze large datasets of drone footage and implementing algorithms to detect signs of COVID-19 in medical scans, states recognize AI as an enabling technology whose power resides in its ability to reduce inefficiencies, accelerate processes, and limit the need for human intervention. However, many organizations and individuals who follow AI developments are concerned about the safety and ethics of the technology’s application, especially for military or police use. As a result, many states are developing policies and frameworks to encourage research into AI and set guidelines for its use. These could help limit the potential negative consequences of AI deployment, such as deadly accidents and unintended conflict.
Since Canada became the first country to publish a national AI strategy, in 2017, a growing number of states have followed suit in a bid to position themselves as early adopters and global leaders in the field. As of December 2020, thirty-one states had published national strategies designed to prioritize and guide AI investment, with twenty-two more saying their strategies were in development. This trend is likely to continue in 2022 and the coming years as the technology matures and diffuses and states begin to implement it in various ways.
Lauren A. Kahn is the research fellow for the National Security and Defense and Digital and Cyberspace Policy programs.
Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.