Is the World Economic Forum still relevant?

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

The 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum starts on January 15 with the aim of putting ‘the basic principles of trust’ on the agenda [Markus Schreiber/AP Photo]By Thomas O FalkPublished On 14 Jan 202414 Jan 2024

This coming week in Switzerland, representatives of governments and international organisations, billionaires and major entrepreneurs, experts and academics, NGOs and press corps will once again descend on the Graubunden winter sports resort in Davos.

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

Keep reading

list of 3 itemslist 3 of 3

What lies ahead for the global economy in 2024?

end of list

But the ongoing fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic that seemingly polarised and divided societies further, 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.

Attendance at the annual gathering has thinned in recent years. Key names such as US President Joe Biden have been missing. In 2023, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was the only leader of a G7 country who attended.

This year, however, seems to be getting off to a more positive start with more political and economic power brokers expected to attend – especially those who could potentially play crucial roles in major global conflicts.

“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, told Al Jazeera.

“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 United States is expected to send a delegation comprising Secretary of State Antony Blinken, NSA Jake Sullivan, and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry – President Joe Biden’s top negotiator on climate change.

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

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is taking place in Davos from January 15 to 19, 2024 [Markus Schreiber/AP Photo]

Creating communities

Despite the unanswered questions of war and peace, a slowing global economy and a growing social divide, Davos is still viewed as an opportunity to mitigate factors leading to global conflict, experts say.

“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.

While the G7 and other summits are all about tough negotiations or delivering results, the WEF has always been a platform for the exchange of ideas.

“The WEF’s approach to addressing issues is guided by a commitment to what is called ‘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 less about creating events, therefore, and more about creating communities. It provides an arena for liaison and discussion between some of the world’s most important decision-makers.

Since its inception, the WEF has provided the space for building communities of political and business leaders, experts and civil society representatives, observers say. The real value of the event lies in this intense focus on networking and the accumulation of knowledge about the state of the world. And it has been helpful in facilitating such exchanges, albeit perhaps not to the standards the WEF 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 group discussions in the formal meetings and informal, one-to-one discussions outside the meetings and over drinks or at meal times.

“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.”

Tackling misinformation

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 the latter en masse, at lightning speed and in a deceptively “real” way. However, so far, solutions to this challenge have been scarce. The European Union recently reached a provisional deal on the regulation of AI, but a broad global regulation or a general rule book does not exist.

“It is obviously crucial to assess and address the consequences of AI, and the WEF would be remiss to neglect the topic,” 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.”

Beyond disinformation, there are other issues that will raise questions in 2024, namely the weakening global economy, inflation and potential recession.

“The global economy faces many risks in 2024,” Copley noted. “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 the inflationary pressures that have emerged in recent years. Central banks have sought to use monetary policy tightening to contain inflation without causing a major crisis in the financial system and without causing such economic pain as to produce political unrest.”

“There is also the longer-term issue of slowing Chinese growth and the relative stagnation of the world economy as a whole, as well as high levels of indebtedness in many global south economies, like Argentina. And, of course, the worsening climate crisis will cause increasing disruption to economic activity.”

Missing the mark

At the same time, Copley thinks that this year’s WEF might be missing the mark in some ways. “This year’s agenda is not proposing anything particularly creative. 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.”

Lack of results would be welcomed by critics who 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 conspiracy theorists, who fuel fears of secret circles that strive for a world order as they see fit. “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.”

Source: Al Jazeera