Too much talking, not enough action at World Economic Forum
The World Economic Forum — the annual meeting in Davos which brings together leaders in the private and public sector — came to a close two weeks ago. Against a backdrop of geopolitical and economic instability, it felt like this year’s forum happened at a crucial time.
The theme of this year’s forum, ‘History at a Turning Point’, seemed to reinforce the idea that we are living through a critical period of change. Yet, for being called a “turning point” in history, there was a fundamental lack of global co-operation in the forum to match.
Fewer G20 leaders attended than in previous years, and people argued that issues like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising energy prices merely became talking points rather than turning points.
This kind of criticism of the World Economic Forum is not unusual. Since its foundation in 1971, it has been called “elitist” and “out of touch”.
Instead of sparking innovation and driving new ideas, many have argued that Davos is nothing more than a platform for connecting billionaire CEOs with political leaders.
However, dynamics between CEOs and political leaders may have shifted even more this year, especially since businesses are now considered to be more trustworthy and competent than governments.
While billionaire CEOs have always had a presence at the forum, their presence was more strongly felt this year, not only due to increased public trust, but also due to their increased number.
This was the argument that set the tone of the anti-poverty charity Oxfam at the forum. Oxfam is one of the many NGOs which annually attends the World Economic Forum to lobby the wealthy of the world.
It strategically timed the release of a new report to coincide with this year’s forum. The report addresses the growth of billionaires in the pandemic, exploring how this relates to economic inequality. According to the report, a new billionaire was minted every 30 hours during the pandemic. By contrast, in 2022, according to World Bank figures, one million people fall into poverty every 33 hours.
Within very similar timeframes, very different trends are therefore occurring. It is the speed at which billionaires accumulated their wealth that proves most alarming. Billionaires’ wealth grew more in the first 24 months of the pandemic than it did in the previous 23 years combined.
At this year’s forum, Gabriela Bucher, International Executive Director of Oxfam, explained that 573 people have become billionaires during the pandemic while 263 million people are projected to fall into extreme poverty this year.
Her appeal was reminiscent of the famous words of Gandhi (“the world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed”), as she spoke about basic principles of humanity, excessive accumulation and profit beyond what is necessary.
Bucher went on to name and praise patriotic billionaires who already contribute through philanthropic giving; however, she also spoke about the limitations of philanthropy as opposed to a collective tax — which would enhance civic decision-making and promote systemic change.
As a charity, Oxfam recommends a windfall tax on billionaires’ pandemic profits: a one-off tax on those who made extraordinary gains during the pandemic and energy crisis — like CEOs of energy companies whose profits rose by $453bn. Revenue from the tax would help ordinary people, deliver universal healthcare and lift 193 million out of severe hunger situations.
Regardless of whether people agree with Bucher’s proposals (to tax individual wealth), she undeniably raises important questions about what it means to improve “the state of the world” — which is exactly what the forum aims to do.
The official tagline of the forum outlines a commitment to “improving the state of the world”, yet, despite managing to get leaders in the same physical space for the first time in two years, the forum did not clarify what actions will be taken to tackle the world’s biggest problems.
Perhaps, we should therefore begin by interrogating what the World Economic Forum truly seeks to accomplish. If we are seriously committed to “improving the state of the world”, does a huge wealth gap really create the conditions to do this?
Bucher raised complex and uncomfortable questions for some; however, to return to the theme of this year, if history is ‘at a turning point’, then Bucher’s questions are the type of questions we need to be asking.
We already know that we are running out of time to address many of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Rather than achieve these goals by 2030, experts predict that we will reach targets sometime between 2073 and 2092. How early depends on who you ask.
While those dates may not resonate for some people, because they seem too far away to care about, Bucher’s most striking comment reminds us that these issues affect the ‘here and now’.
These are present, not future, concerns. The magnitude of environmental, economic and social concerns is immense: so much so that we are “running out of adjectives and words” to describe them, as Bucher explains.
Bucher is right. Many injustices in our world seem to eclipse our linguistic ability to capture them. Words like ‘unfair’ and ‘sad’ fall short, and they seem woefully insufficient adjectives in the face of war, conflict, poverty and suffering.
Yet, principles like courage, generosity, justice and love are universal languages. Perhaps, then, if political and economic leaders responded to the climate of the times with these same principles, this would indeed signal “History at a Turning Point”.