The case for the World Economic Forum is only getting stronger

WEF is one of a dwindling group of institutions championing the benefits of globalisation, capitalism and multilateralism

The Swiss town of Davos hosts the World Economic Forum every year. Reuters
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As 2023 draws to a close, we find the traditional system of co-operation between multiple nations, often called multilateralism, is thriving again. Evidence of the past few weeks alone shows how it is not quite as obsolete as some observers have claimed in recent years. At Cop28, for example, 198 parties agreed on a way forward for further reducing harmful carbon emissions which included – for the first time – a transition away from fossil fuels that may yet save the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.

The EU has also set out the first set of rules on the use of artificial intelligence, a moment which will prove to be historic as the era of AI accelerates. Equally, the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, have shown the limits of multilateralism. An end to either of those wars is no closer and the mechanisms built into the UN seem ill-equipped to stop the spilling of the blood of the innocent. So, we must use every opportunity to refine and reform multilateralist institutions to meet the most difficult challenges we face.

It is less than a month away from the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, which has been a champion of multilateralism for more than half a century. The event is yearly accused of being little more than a talking shop or an echo chamber for the elite. It is worth, however, flipping such criticism on its head in order to understand why it still matters a great deal in terms of fostering more effective co-operation.

The annual meeting’s secret sauce is being able to physically bring together government and business leaders, billionaires, scientists, experts, grass roots campaigners, journalists, film stars and athletes for a few days in snowy, freezing January and once they enter the rarefied halls of the Kongress Centre put them all on an equal intellectual footing.

Barriers – social, economic and political – come down and profound discussions can happen between the most unlikely individuals, bridging differences and changing minds. Outside of the conference venue, the Swiss mountain town typically hosts more than 10,000 people who choose this week to connect with clients, investors and the media, providing gravitas and inspiration.

The very cold weather and the security cordons, not to mention the walking on icy treacherous streets, adds an element of difficulty to daily life that also helps to reduce egos.

Barriers come down and profound discussions can happen between the most unlikely individuals

Many of the most critical issues of our time, including resolving conflict, improving access to economic opportunity, climate change and how best to manage a fractured system of global trade, dominate much of the conversations being had.

As a result, Davos is increasingly a rare thing. A time and place when actual discourse can occur. It is impossible to overestimate how important it is to have as many such opportunities as possible in this polarised economic and political landscape.

Back in the early 1970s when Professor Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum, this was the very spirit he was seeking to instil amid the height of the Cold War.

Since then the world has been re-ordered several times.

The World Economic Forum has in recent years been one of a dwindling group of institutions championing the benefits of globalisation, capitalism and multilateralism, while also using the convening power of its annual meeting in Davos to attempt to manifest better versions of all of these concepts.

The Forum has offered a platform to as broad a collection of voices as possible, inviting the personification of populism, for example, Donald Trump to the gathering in 2018. The following year Greta Thunberg was invited to the meeting where she added momentum for the youth-led climate activism that had exploded into our consciousness the summer before. These were two perspectives on how our futures needed to be shaped that were in direct opposition to each other, yet somehow could coexist without needing to extinguish the oxygen of the other. This doesn't regularly occur on social media sites yet Davos makes this happen time and again.

Similarly, Chinese officials will often attend the annual meeting regardless of the state of geopolitical tensions with other world powers and the spiky rhetoric between them. It is reported Beijing will, next month, send its most significant delegation to Davos in more than five years. The United States is always represented by senior administration officials, past and present. There is then the chance of better understanding between the two largest economies.

Recently, the presence in Davos of rapidly developing economies like the UAE and Saudi Arabia has become more pronounced. The Gulf countries have charted a path to prosperity even as they face some of the most daunting challenges. They offer an exciting example for Europe and the US, as the region takes on greater responsibility for leading the energy transition.

The Gulf's youthful populations expect to achieve high standards of living and well-being. Although there are daily reminders of geopolitical reality of where these countries are located, foreign direct investment is flowing in at faster levels than ever. Actors such as the UAE are the new standard bearers for multilateralism and they will help ensure it can continue to be an effective pathway for increased understanding no matter the polarisation and differences that plague our world.

Published: December 29, 2023, 7:00 AM
Updated: December 30, 2023, 6:26 PM