In a world troubled by grave uncertainties over the basics governing trade, security and the mission to limit climate change, Davos saw another year of hosting the World Economic Forum in its backyard, enchanting Ski resort under the theme “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”. The Forum which was extended to a five day summit, has dominated the discussion tables’ around the world media. This year was the biggest forum to date with a record 3,000 participants taking part in five-day of panel discussions, lunches and cocktail parties. More than a third of those were representing groups that are outside business and government. This article will break down in brief what the forum represents and the main agenda of this year’s discussions.
Founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German economics professor, the European Economic Forum began as a conference for European business leaders to discuss catching up with American management processes. Two years later, the conference had shifted its focus to global economic and social issues, and the first political leaders were invited to attend.
In 1987 the organization was renamed the World Economic Forum, and its annual conference was known well enough to be referred to simply as Davos. The conference has been the site of several historic meetings, including two in 1989: the first ministerial-level meeting between North and South Korea, and another between the leaders of East and West Germany.
As the prestige of the conference grew, more politicians, thought leaders and celebrities began attending the event.
- Davos 2017
More than 3,000 people attended this year’s conference from 90 different countries. Most of the participants were corporate executives, but more than two dozen heads of state and government attended. Though gender equality is often discussed at the forum, just 17 percent of last year’s participants were women, according to the forum, this year that percentage increased by three.
This year, the guest list included names like President Xi Jinping of China; Theresa May, PM of the United Kingdom; Vice President Joseph Biden; JPMorgan Chase’s chief executive, Jamie Dimon; the head of the International Monetary Fund, Christine Lagarde; and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as a glittering array of the cognoscenti descended on the Alps: the tech-titan-turned-philanthropist Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft; the billionaire investor George Soros; Jack Ma, the founder of China’s e-commerce giant, Alibaba. An assortment of Hollywood actors including Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon have made the pilgrimage over the years to promote their nonprofit work, this year Shakira & Forest Whitaker graced the forum. And the conversations tend to be dominated by issues like inequality, climate change and the economic challenges facing developed and emerging countries.
Notable, perhaps, was the absence of persons and representatives that some of have come to describe as “Euroskeptic” and “populist” leaders, which have recently shaken the political landscapes of nations in Europe and across the Atlantic. Can their absence be viewed as a rebuke of “Davos Man”? This moniker was used by Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington to describe the attendees in 2004, explaining that they were “trans-nationalists” who “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operation.”
In a year where populism played a great role in reshaping of the world economy, it seems Davos slowly starting to become what Guardian columnist Naomi Klein has described as a “hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cozy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous.” She explains that there has been a failure of “elite neoliberalism” to address the economic challenges of the masses.
This is not the first time that the WEF has come under fire from critics about its pro-globalization, neoliberal message. In 2000, a group of more than 1,000 demonstrators carried placards reading “Against the New World Order”, smashed the windows of a McDonald’s franchise in Davos and protested free trade policies espoused by then-President Bill Clinton, who was speaking at the event.
One thing is sure: Davos 2017 was held at a time where the very nature of globalization is in question and populism is growing worldwide.
China’s First Ever Participation
For the first time ever, a leader of China’s Communist Party took center stage at the WEF, arguing for globalization and the wonders of free trade.
In the country’s first ever participation in the forum, President Xi Jinping stated that in a global trade war “No one will win.” His statement was seen as a rebuke of protectionist policies espoused by populists and Euroskeptics.
China remains the world’s big driver of economic growth despite its own slowdown, and was estimated to have accounted for almost 39 percent of global growth last year, according to the WEF.
President Xi, who brought with him an entourage of more than 80 business executives, indicated that while some consider globalization a sort of “Pandora’s box” full of all the world’s evils, it cannot be blamed for global ills such as the plight of Syrian refugees or the 2008 financial crisis. He also told the forum that China’s economy grew 6.7% in 2016 despite the sluggish world economy.
For Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the participation of China’s president amounted to a public relations coup because, as stated above, it was the first time a Chinese head of state had attended. “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China to continue its responsive and responsible leadership in providing all of us with confidence and stability,” Mr. Schwab said.
Xi told the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Tuesday that failures of governance, not globalization, were fueling anxiety around the globe. He called on the billionaires and political leaders present to close wealth gaps and improve financial regulation, without retreating from policies that have fueled decades of growth.
- Joe Biden Addresses the “One Percent”
There was a smaller representation of US officials this year. Among them was former US Vice President Joe Biden, who addressed the forum. In his speech he indicated world was in a time of “uncertainty” and recommended doubling down on the values that made Western democracies great rather than allow the “liberal world order” to be torn apart by destructive forces.
Furthermore, Biden urged world leaders to maintain the status quo. He warned that the reason for the pressure on the democratic order is the rise in income inequality and the hollowing out of the middle class, as the rich get richer and people in developing nations see their lives gradually improve. He said the top 1 percent is not paying their fair share, and as a result we are seeing social instability increase. Biden, known as the Middle Class Man, explained, “We need to tap into the big heartedness.”
- Christine Lagarde on Inequality
Speaking at the forum back in 2013, IMF Chief Executive Christine Lagarde warned against the dangers of inequality in the world.
“You can be absolutely sure that nations will revert to their natural tendency of hiding behind their borders, of moving towards protectionism, of listening to vested interests, and they’ll forget about transcending those national priorities,” said Lagarde.
It was no surprise her speech this year saw her recall what she had cautioned against four years ago. As inequality fueled political, economic and social instability in 2016, Lagarde was quick to urge world leaders to be a cohesive unit in order to address the issue in 2017.
“Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, ‘The test of our progress is not if we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.’”
- WEF on Africa, Middle East and Latin America
Africa is facing a mixed outlook for growth. The economic growth forecast for the continent over the coming year is expected to be lower than the 5% average of the past decade. This is largely due to the dip in commodity prices and the economic slowdown in China. That said, a number of countries are growing above 6% per annum and foreign direct investment inflows continue to rise. Overall, the divergence of Africa’s economies make it imperative to address the challenges posed by a growing unemployed youth population and climate change, among other issues.
The impact of the headwinds for commodity-dependent countries has refocused attention on the urgency of economic diversification, revitalization of manufacturing and harnessing of human innovation in order to weather the economic storm. The Fourth Industrial Revolution offers new opportunities to achieve inclusive and sustainable growth by fast-tracking market integration in Africa through industrial corridors.
In partnership with the Government of the Republic of South Africa, the World Economic Forum on Africa will be held in Durban, South Africa, on 3-5 May 2017. The meeting will convene regional and global leaders from business, government and civil society to explore solutions to create economic opportunities for all.
The World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa will be held at the Dead Sea in Jordan on 19-21 May 2017, in partnership with the King Abdullah II Fund for
Development (KAFD). The meeting will convene over 1,000 government, business and civil society leaders from more than 50 countries.
The meeting will take place in the context of growing economic reform efforts that are being made in many countries of the region, as well as shifting investment and trade priorities. It will also aim to address continued geopolitical shifts and humanitarian challenges by supporting multi-stakeholder dialogue on the situation in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and the ongoing refugee crisis.
Meanwhile, Latin America’s ongoing transformation is well exemplified in this year’s host country. Argentina – a G20 economy with vast resources – is dynamically adopting a new economic framework, reentering international credit markets, and driving technological and digital transformations across sectors.
Latin America has reached an inflection point. Its economies are adapting their monetary and fiscal strategies in the face of a period of slower growth and budget cuts. The region is also experiencing historic political milestones, advancing structural reforms and opening for further integration, as inclusiveness and poverty reduction remain high on the agenda.
- In conclusion…..
This year, though, WEF organizers – perhaps because for the first time in years the conference overlapped the U.S. inauguration – seemingly decided to take on world events more directly. The official theme of the forum, which drew world leaders and top Fortune 500 executives, was “responsive and responsible leadership.”
From a crowd and a conference that seems to lean heavily toward supporting globalization and free trade, one could see this year’s theme as taking direct aim at the rise of populism. One of first panels of the conference was how to tackle world problems in an era of “fake news,” which to some is simply alternative news.
According to speakers, the global economy was in better shape than it’s been in past years with stock markets booming, oil prices rising again and the risks of a rapid economic slowdown in China, a major source of concern a year ago. However, the mood was anything but celebratory.
Beneath the veneer of optimism over the economic outlook lurked acute anxiety about an increasingly toxic political climate and a deep sense of uncertainty surrounding recent world political scenarios.
The populist ferment refashioning the global order has made previously unthinkable roles possible. In the United States, a wealthy real estate magnate has captured the White House on the strength of his appeal to the blue-collar workers, questioning the relevance of powerful institutions from NATO to the World Trade Organization.
Britain is pursuing a divorce from the European Union, dealing a blow to those who have advanced regional integration as a solution to economic and security problems. The growing electoral strength of populist, anti-European Union parties in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany have intensified fears that the union may not endure.
All the while, the chairman of the Communist Party of China — the vanguard of the world’s largest peasant-led revolution — upheld the merits of globalization.
These developments have yielded a gnawing sense that the complex world is suddenly short of adult supervision. As such, the year 2017 brings with it many questions.