Is the World Economic Forum still relevant?

Experts weigh in on how much value actually Davos provides to the global community.

KATHMANDU: Representatives of governments and international organisations, billionaires, entrepreneurs, experts, academics, NGOs and press corps are once again descending on the Graubunden winter sports resort in Davos, Switzerland.

Under the motto “Rebuilding Trust”, the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) will start on January 15, aiming to discuss “the basic principles of trust” – transparency, coherence and responsibility.

But the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as from new conflicts around the globe may make it difficult to rebuild trust in institutions. And these days, the relevance of the WEF itself is often up for debate.

High-level attendees at the annual gathering have thinned in recent years with key names like US President Joe Biden missing. In 2023, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the only leader of a G7 country who attended.

“Leaders do not lose interest in forums such as the WEF, but they do make strategic decisions about whether it would be beneficial to attend the meeting each year,” Peter Willetts, emeritus professor of global politics at City, University of London, said.

“Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to rally support for Ukraine, which will probably mean the Russians will send a low-level political delegation.”

Willetts added that the US is expected to send a delegation comprising Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry – President Joe Biden’s top negotiator on climate change.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani are also expected to attend.

Creating communities
Despite not offering firm solutions to problems, Davos can still be viewed as an opportunity to mitigate factors leading to global conflict, experts say.

“The WEF’s approach to addressing issues is guided by … ‘multi-stakeholder governance’, which means that the world’s problems are best tackled by the diverse stakeholders that are impacted by them,” Jack Copley, assistant professor in international political economy at Durham University, told Al Jazeera.

The basis of the WEF’s activity is therefore providing an arena for liaison and discussion between some of the world’s most important decision-makers.

“The WEF has certainly been a major force promoting ideas of public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder collaboration in response to global challenges,” Jan Aart Scholte, professor of global transformations and governance challenges at Leiden University, told Al Jazeera.

The real value of the event lies in this focus on networking and the accumulation of knowledge, which it has helped facilitate, albeit perhaps not to the standards it often claims.

“Like all political forums, the World Economic [Forum] states its goals in overoptimistic, general terms,” Willetts noted. “That said, it has been a useful forum for some global leaders to have … informal, one-to-one discussions outside the meetings.

“What has also been useful is the diversity of the people who attend – from leading national politicians and UN officials to business leaders and the staff of major non-governmental organisations.”

On the Davos agenda
According to the WEF’s Global Risks Report for 2024, disinformation and misinformation pose the greatest threat to the world over the next two years. In second and third place: extreme weather events and the political polarisation of society.

A primary factor contributing to disinformation is artificial intelligence (AI), which can produce convincing disinformation at lightning speed.

So far, global solutions to this challenge have been scarce. The European Union has a provisional deal on regulating AI, but global regulation does not exist.

“It is obviously crucial to assess and address the consequences of AI,” Scholte noted. “However, whether the WEF has something distinctive to contribute – and how well it communicates and cooperates with other initiatives in this area – remains to be seen.”

Scholte feels this year’s WEF might be missing the mark by not posing creative questions on its agenda.

“One could have posed matters in a more challenging manner: for example, in terms of building peace rather than achieving security; debating the concept of growth rather than taking its desirability for granted; looking beyond climate policy to larger debates about the ecological viability of the prevailing world order.”

A weakening global economy, inflation and potential recession will be major worries in 2024 and are linked to wider issues.

“There are threats to global production and commerce from war – from the economic fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to the regional ramifications of Israel’s destruction of Gaza. There is the ongoing battle against inflationary pressures … in recent years. Central banks have sought to use monetary policy tightening to contain inflation without causing … such economic pain as to produce political unrest,” Copley noted.

He went on to explain that slowing growth and economic stagnation in China and the world as a whole will also have their impact, as will the increasing climate disasters which disrupt economic activity.

Missing the mark
Some critics have never believed that the WEF is making the world a better place – even if it likes to claim that for itself.

“The WEF and other multi-stakeholder endeavours have democratic deficits when the people that they affect do not have adequate opportunities to participate in and control their processes,” Scholte said.

“It is an exclusive invitation-only club, and meaningful participation is mainly limited to the world’s more powerful governments, corporations, and civil society actors. Moreover, when excluded people disagree with or feel harmed by WEF activities, they generally lack adequate channels to be heard and pursue redress.”

This status quo, and the idea that a “global elite” is making decisions for the common man, has been fodder for various observers.

“Some of the criticisms levelled against the WEF have been quite fantastical, such as claims that the WEF is part of a global cabal that runs world affairs,” Copley said. “These conspiracies seem to have gained momentum in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Throughout WEF this week, there will certainly be discussion around its relevance and legacy.

“Whether the WEF has been successful in its current iteration depends on how you interpret its goals,” Copley noted. “It has certainly succeeded in gathering a range of corporate and political elites from different parts of the world to discuss pressing topics in luxurious surroundings, and it has produced a variety of reports and public-private initiatives. Some of these initiatives have had concrete effects on real-world issues, like its vaccination campaign,” Copley concluded.

“But the WEF’s real impact falls short of its lofty pronouncements.” Al Jazeera

Thomas O Falk |
Monday January 22, 2024, 01:34:49 PM |

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