The town of Davos is, from the looks of things, eerily quiet for late January. The Swiss mountain resort is usually marked by bustling streets, security checks and high-powered congregations when the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held. This year the meeting has moved online, given the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Davos Agenda, as this meeting is being called, has not suffered from a lack of a physical dimension too much, in terms of intellectual spirit. The leaders of government and business taking part, include China’s President Xi Jinping, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s Emanuel Macron, King Abdullah of Jordan, Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Bill Gates and Google’s Sundar Pichai.
Much of the discussion during the meetings has been around the critical task of resetting global attitudes to international co-operation, trade and business. How to move towards a more inclusive economic model, one that addresses climate change, inequality and rapidly developing technology, is also front and centre.
Ending the pandemic, including making a success of a worldwide vaccination push, is also at the heart of what is being talked about. There has been action during this virtual Davos too, such as the formation of an international partnership to accelerate the development of treatments for Alzheimer’s. A coalition has also been created by dozens of companies to tackle racism in the workplace. Since last year, the Forum’s reskilling initiative has helped 50 million people. In the medium to long-term, the picture looks optimistic, as some of the most powerful and intelligent people work on our biggest problems.
In the past two years, the Forum has worked hard to keep the annual meeting relevant and productive amid a challenging global landscape for multilateralism and globalisation. One way that it has been able to do this is to ensure that longer term strategies and goals are not undermined by shorter term realities, political or otherwise. Still there is always a concurrent discussion in Davos about the more immediate challenges and opportunities.
At the meeting a year ago, when former US president Donald Trump addressed the audience – an early stump speech essentially, for his re-election bid – many who were listening in Davos assumed that the remainder of 2020 would be dominated by the US presidential elections. Instead, the year was defined by the emergence of the coronavirus.
This week, as the Forum works to make productive gains on its agenda on the future, what happens in the next few days and months also remains of great concern. And like a year ago, it seems there could be an emerging issue that may overtake our plans once again.
Fresh protests and civil unrest have sprung up across nations, including in the Netherlands, Lebanon, India and Tunisia. The pressure of the pandemic, economic woes and political crises have triggered a small but angry wave of discontentment that threatens to become more permanent if we don't make progress quickly. While we have earlier witnessed similar scenes in many countries, rarely have they coincided at such a scale. It feels as if we are reaching a watershed moment.
The Forum’s founder Professor Klaus Schwab warned last summer that the pandemic revealed a great and collective desire for change that governments and companies around the world must urgently address or risk “violent shocks”.
From the photos of the troubles in the Netherlands and Lebanon, a violent reaction to severe coronavirus-related restrictions, it appears to be mainly young men on the streets.
As the International Monetary Fund highlighted: “the burden of the crisis has fallen unevenly” with the young among those groups that have suffered “disproportionate livelihood and income losses”. Such an experience will have consequences the longer the crisis drags on.
In the past dozen or so years, an entire generation has experienced a remarkable lurch – from a financial crisis to the rise of populism to the current public health crisis.
Saadia Zahidi, managing director of the Forum, said: “this rising erosion of social cohesion … comes in part from a generational shift, in particular, the pandemials that have been most affected by the current crisis".
The discontent goes beyond just the young, however. In India, farmers are frustrated over the government’s economic and agricultural policies. In Tunisia, a political deadlock has added to the sense of malaise in the country.
It is too much to expect that a Davos meeting – online or otherwise – can conjure up a quick solution to problems like these, which were perhaps inevitable as soon as the pandemic began to blight our lives.
However, it is worth noting that around this time last year, when these same leaders were shaking hands in Switzerland, the seeds of a solution to the pandemic were already being discussed. For example, an announcement was made during the Davos annual meeting last year that the development of Covid-19 vaccines would be accelerated, including by the American pharmaceutical company Moderna, which has become a reality.
So, if protests around the world dominate many of early 2021’s headlines, it is likely that the tools needed to resolve causes of any unrest will have been helped by discussions in these past few days – even if that is not immediately apparent to observers.
Mustafa Alrawi is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National