Davos is a starting point for global action
The conference has drawn criticism but only dialogue can solve the world's challenges
The annual Davos meeting is not without its detractors. But those who label it an elitist gathering of the privileged overlook the World Economic Forum’s unique value. The ability to convene leaders in politics, business, humanitarian work – the heads of ICRC and UNHCR are regular attendees – cannot be overlooked.
On Tuesday, as they have done for decades, leaders from the worlds of politics and business will descend on the small Swiss town of Davos, united by the view that solving the world’s major challenges requires co-operation. This year, more than 3,000 guests will attend the forum, among them dozens of heads of state and government, including Germany’s outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel and new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
It will not be the first time that they gather at a time when massive fractures divide the world and populism sweeps Europe and the Americas. Yet the agenda, entitled Globalisation 4.0, aims to create a more inclusive future. Davos has long pushed a pro-globalisation agenda, based on the belief that mutual understanding and common interests can be achieved in a globalised world – and that nations that look inwards will suffer.
But while that view prospered for decades, the global consensus has shifted and Davos today looks different from previous meetings as a result. Last year US President Donald Trump opened the conference, having swept to power on a message of economic protectionism. This year Mr Bolsonaro, who speaks fondly of Brazil’s former military dictatorship, will introduce a loud, anti-globalisation voice to discussions. Meanwhile exponents of globalisation, like French President Emmanuel Macron and UK Prime Minister Theresa May, will not attend, plagued by their own battles to represent the will of the people in their nations.
The criticisms levelled at the exclusivity of the forum have grown louder in recent years. Nationalist bugles such as former White House aide Steve Bannon have taken aim at “Davos Man”, what political scientist Samuel Huntington called “gold-collar workers”, whose privilege prevents them from seeing the daily realities that millions face today. But with numerous challenges facing the world, Mr Bannon’s cries help no one.
What the world needs is a balanced debate around the future of globalisation, climate, automation and technology. This is not about perpetuating a repressive or exclusionary world order but creating a more inclusive future and providing a space for those who will determine the future to connect.
Davos aims to do just that. It ensures business leaders and politicians do not lose sight of their obligations to be responsible and responsive. Dialogue and the sharing of ideas are the only path out of protectionism and division and it is in forums such as Davos that the cross-fertilisation of ideas have the potential to breed and flourish.
But not only that – Davos can spur tangible progress. For heads of state, it is an opportunity to make important connections and secure support and investment for the good of their people. For all attendees, it is a reminder of the ways that the coming wave of technology, automation and artificial intelligence will fundamentally change the world we live in. In preparing their nations and realising the importance of these potent changes, the World Economic Forum plays a role few others can.
Updated: January 21, 2019 09:45 AM