The world order is worth saving – but Davos isn’t the way to do it

We know all too well that people don’t respect top-down change based on the decisions of a cloistered elite

The World Economic Forum at Davos: what is it, who attends, why is it important?

If you thought you would never find Bill Gates, Greta Thunberg, and will.i.am in a room together, just wait until 21 January and the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The “international organisation for public-private cooperation” takes place next week in the swish Swiss ski resort of Davos, attracting 3,000 of the world’s “brightest and best” to grapple with the most pressing problems of the day.

The conversation will continue after dark at star-studded receptions, where anyone from the likes of the European Commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, to Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, can be expected to appear.

At a time when the world’s problems – from climate catastrophe to the collapse of the multilateral world order – seem almost insurmountable, Davos surely provides a much-needed opportunity for everyone to put their heads together and design some viable solutions.

This, sadly, is not what transpires. Davos is not a fertile bed for the change that so many people desire. Why? Because the people will not be there.

Those who want to attend must be invited, or pay upwards of $600,000 for “membership” of the WEF, making it little more than a meet-and-greet for CEOs to lobby their world leader of choice. But, if 2019 taught us anything, it was that unless people are listened to, there will be a backlash against liberal institutions.

Protesters took to the streets the world over to demand more from their governments – a change of leadership, democratic reforms, or a reduction in the cost of living. The sheer power of people around the world showed leaders that if they don’t listen, their governments will not survive. Those who understand this have responded accordingly: Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory in December came largely off the back of his promise to “get Brexit done”, more than three years after the public had voted to leave the European Union.

Defenders claim that the annual gathering at Davos “provides a forum in which truth can be spoken to power” and to some extent they might be right. Greta Thunberg will be there, and she has promised to tell world leaders to “abandon the fossil-fuel economy”. Panels will ask, “How do we reshape economies so that growth benefits the many and not the few?”

Aside from the irony of charging tens of thousands of pounds to attend an event titled Fairer Economies, the conference is entirely missing the point.

People do not want change that comes from behind closed doors, from conversations that they are not well-off enough or well-known enough to be privy to. The attacks on the multilateral world order of the past few years have been born out of a lack of transparency and democratic accountability that the process of globalisation has engendered.

Populist leaders, including Donald Trump, have tapped into this, setting a retreat from globalisation into motion. But they aren’t the cause of the collapse of the world order – they are just symptoms.

“If you think Donald Trump is to blame for the issues facing liberal democracies, you’re giving him way too much credit.” said Kate Andrews at a recent British Foreign Policy Group event. “Liberal democracies are facing plenty of issues all of their own making.”

Davos is symptomatic of these issues, and illustrates her point perfectly. Aaron Horvath and Walter Powell, two Stanford sociologists, have found that when elites try to solve public problems privately, it can disrupt democracy, crowding out the public sector through private initiatives; this, in turn, reduces legitimacy and efficacy, replacing “civic goals with narrower concerns about efficiency and markets”.

Indeed, the sessions at Davos focus on a move away from public solutions to private ones, such as “swapping subsidies for green incentives” or “the business case for safeguarding nature”. But, as the climate strikers of 2019 have shown us, people actually want large-scale, government-led action on climate change, not a reduction of it.

In his exposé of elite problem-solving, Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadhas writes: “The inescapable answer to the overwhelming question, ‘Where do we go from here?’ is: somewhere other than where we have been going, led by people other than the people who have been leading us.” He is right.

The multilateral world order is worth saving. Diplomacy and international forums are necessary and important in dealing with climate change, war, and other global threats. A rules-based international system facilitates trade, travel and other public goods. These forums must be transparent and accessible, however – and Davos is not.

If world leaders want to protect our institutions, the global order, and ultimately their own positions, they must ditch Davos and start listening to people before it’s too late.

Flora Holmes is a researcher at the British Foreign Policy Group

 

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