What the world’s movers and shakers will talk about this week
World leaders will begin arriving on Monday for the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss alpine town of Davos. Fifty years is a huge benchmark for the organization founded by Klaus Schwab with the aim of “improving the state of the world.”
When WEF began it was much smaller than the event that will draw 3,000 delegates this year, and focused on Europe and business. Now prominent figures from all walks of life share the podium; business grandees, political heavyweights, civil society leaders and of course the media, who gain unparalleled access to the delegates in a relaxed atmosphere.
US President Donald Trump will attend this year, and speak on Tuesday, the opening day. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director Kristalina Georgieva, Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin, UNAIDS director Winnie Byanyima and environmental activist Greta Thunberg are among hundreds of high-level speakers.
This year’s agenda focuses on seven core themes — how to save the planet, society and the future of work, tech for good, fairer economies, better business, healthy futures, and beyond geopolitics.
The global elite are more optimistic about the economic outlook than they were a year ago, now that phase 1 of the US-China trade agreement has been signed, but we are not out of the woods yet. The US China trade war has sent ripples through the global economy, especially to open trading nations. While the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (for which read NAFTA II) has passed both houses of Congress and will soon be signed by the president, Europe is holding its breath for Trump to unleash his fury over the US-EU trade relationship. This would be particularly bad news for Germany, whose car industry is heavily integrated with the US, both as an export market and as a production site. Germany has already suffered from the fallout of the US-China trade war, so much so that its economy narrowly avoided a technical recession last summer. It exports mainly capital goods and cars to China. Brexit also looms large over Europe. That said, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is not attending Davos, and nor are any of his ministers.
The killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet in Tehran have brought geopolitical tensions in the Middle East to the fore. We may collectively have forgotten about northeast Asia, but North Korea stays on top of the agenda in Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.
Davos provides time out for many leaders from different walks of life. It gives them the space to discuss important issues in public as well as behind closed doors. It that sense, the forum truly achieves its objective of “improving the state of the world.”
The environment has come to the forefront of collective apprehension. Typhoons, wildfires and floods have dominated the headlines. Barely a week passes without the release of a new report on the acceleration of climate change. Even without those reports, striking schoolchildren and demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion would not have allowed us to forget the climate emergency. In that context it is important that the forum’s international business council will release a universal Environmental, Social and Governance scorecard.
The future of work will get a lot of attention: WEF’s annual meeting in 2016 was among the first gatherings to draw attention to “Industry 4.0,” or the fourth industrial revolution, and how artificial intelligence and robotics will change the nature of work. The debate has picked up pace since then. For instance, the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh — “Davos in the desert” — devoted a large part of its gathering last year to this topic.
Many criticize Davos for being elitist, and it probably is, but the world has always been run by elites of sorts. The leaders from business, politics and civil society who attend all constitute the cream of the crop in their fields. However, Schwab has done a fine job widening the circle from business to politics, and then to civil society. The organization’s global agenda councils search far and wide to assemble relevant topics and participants. WEF’s scholarly reports are well researched and relevant. Last but not least, the forum has given many young leaders visibility and brought many issues to prominence; Greta Thunberg’s environmental advocacy might never have been so successful had it not been for her first appearance on the mountain top last year.
Davos provides time out for many leaders from different walks of life. It gives them the space to discuss important issues in public as well as behind closed doors. It that sense, the forum truly achieves its objective of “improving the state of the world” — or at least trying to do so.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources