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29 January, 2017 00:00 00 AM
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Look carefully, 2017 is not all doom and gloom

These electorates wanted change. They wanted something that the older established and entrenched political vehicles were not offering, and the system did not stymie them
Sholto Byrnes
Look carefully, 2017 is not all doom and gloom

The caterwauling about Donald Trump, and now about his press secretary Sean Spicer, echoes throughout the lands. If 2016 was the "worst year ever", as The New York Times asked, 2017 has got off to a terrible start for those determined to see the new American president as a symbol of doom, of decline in the international world order, and of a future in which "alternative facts" have become the new "truth".

There are, however, plenty of reasons to be cheerful about this new year. Global poverty is declining. According to the World Bank, every day around 250,000 people are lifted out of extreme poverty. Despite many justified complaints about the 1 per cent, global inequality is also declining, driven largely but not completely by the rise of China and India. We are far less likely to suffer from catastrophic wars of intervention, with Donald Trump’s announcement in his inauguration speech: "It is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example." 
Bill Gates sees Africa as a success story that should inspire us this year. Recently he wrote that, while 2016 may have been a difficult year for many African countries, "almost every trend on the continent has been moving in the right direction over the last decade".  Gates listed per capita income, foreign investment, agricultural productivity, mobile banking, entrepreneurship, immunisation rates and school enrolment as all heading in the right direction. Poverty, armed conflicts, HIV, malaria and child mortality, he noted, "are all on the decline – steeply so in many places."
Also in Africa, we have seen progress towards democratic transitions, while dictatorships falter and fall. What’s just happened in Gambia is one example, following Nigeria’s first ever democratic transfer of its presidency in 2015. Yahya Jammeh accepted, then rejected, a December vote in which he lost the presidency, but he finally flew out of Gambia and into exile last weekend. Meanwhile in Congo, it looks more likely that Joseph Kabila will step down after overstaying his constitutional term limits as head of state. In the past, both would almost have certainly clung on, for dear life, and quite likely, for their actual lives.
To continue on the subject of democracy, whatever one may think about the election of  Trump, or other populists, from president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to the success of the Front National in France, these are manifestations not of failing democratic institutions, but of ones that are in robust health. 
These electorates wanted change. They wanted something that the older established and entrenched political vehicles were not offering, and the system did not stymie them. It allowed their will to be expressed, which – whether one agrees with that will or not – is ultimately the prime purpose of democracy.
If you want an instance of a democracy truly failing its electorate, try the United Kingdom’s 1983 general election, in which the Labour Party won 27.6 per cent of the vote and 209 seats, while the SDP/Liberal Alliance won 25.4 per cent of the vote, but only 23 seats. Lastly, ISIL is in retreat, driven out of half of Mosul and all of Sirte, and the territory it controls has been drastically reduced.
The shortlist I have outlined above seems to me to be more than enough reason to be positive about 2017. A retreat from American adventurism abroad is something that countries around the world will welcome. For decades, after all, United States interventions helped snuff out democracies from Chile to Iran, dropped more military munitions on one country – Laos – than all those rained on Europe in the Second World War, and propped up pretty much any dictator who was reliably anti-communist, no matter how brutal.
But neither that, nor any counterargument, is likely to sway the many for whom November 9, 2016, the date on which  Trump’s victory became apparent, represents an Armageddon from which they have still not recovered. More to the point, there seem to be many who do not wish to recover, every day proclaiming that they are reeling in shock at some new outrage perpetrated, or some new redefinition of conventional ways of concluding what is factual or not.
But there should be nothing surprising about  Trump’s surprises. From his inauguration speech, during which he insulted the four ex-presidents on stage with him by implying they were part of the "small group in our nation’s capital" that "reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost", to the complete whopper that more had attended his swearing-in than any other in history, we are merely seeing a continuation from before.
 Trump was unspun during his campaign. He remains so now. If they are not to spend the next four years in a constant state of depression and startled indignation, his critics had better get used to it. Moreover, they should not feed his already huge ego by suggesting that he is more important than anything or anyone else. To the quarter million lifted out of extreme poverty today, that is of greater consequence, as are the first ever democratic transitions in African countries to the peoples who suffered under strongmen for too long. So there is, in fact, plenty to be cheery about in 2017. To recognise that, a little perspective, and a little less obsession with the man with the orange face and an implausible hairstyle, is all it takes.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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