Amid Davos business talk, international community struggles to find a voice

International Geneva meets WEF. Speakers at a Swiss-sponsored event including, from left, Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, WEF vice chairman, Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis, Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, Tatiana Valovaya, UN director general in Geneva, Nathalie Fontanet, Geneva state councillor, Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, ICRC president, and Volker Türk, UN high commissioner for human rights. 17 January 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

A week after its managing directors presented an agenda on how a global “polycrisis” will be tackled through better cooperation, the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) business-centred focus has returned to centre stage, to the frustration of some of its international neighbours from Geneva and beyond.

Promising record participation by government officials, international organisations and civil society representatives, WEF founder Klaus Schwab said the annual meeting would “try to make sure that leaders do not remain trapped in a crisis mindset and adopt more longer-term constructive perspectives”, towards the unprecedented multiple crises at hand.

WEF titled its meeting “Cooperation in a Fragmented World”, to reflect those ambitions. The 85 year-old fixture at the Geneva-based think tank told journalists the meeting would “shape the future in a more sustainable, more inclusive and more resilient way”.

Earlier this week, some participants expressed, mostly off-the-record, frustration about how inclusive the meeting was towards multilateral organisations and the wider international community.

Aside from the forum’s strategic members who pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of participating in many of the closed door meetings taking place in Davos, WEF invites public figures to talk and meet with interested stakeholders. The convergence of many of these actors in Switzerland often leads to further conversations, such as on Wednesday between the US treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, and Chinese vice premier Liu He in Zurich amid tense political and economic relations between the two countries.

But mid-way through the week in Davos and three years after the traditional winter edition was suspended by the pandemic, it was back to business as normal, with business leading the agenda and observers annoyed at the lack of substantive discussions on global crises.

International rallying call

The Swiss mission to the UN in Geneva took the opportunity on Tuesday to offer a reminder of the role of international Geneva in dealing with global crises.

Speaking at a panel on the fringe of WEF during the Geneva-themed day, Nathalie Fontanet, Geneva state councillor, said that while international Geneva may be “less visible and less spectacular” than Davos, the spirit of collaboration and efforts to find solutions take place “all year-round”.

A panel on discussions in Geneva over a treaty to combat plastic pollution provided an example of how the international organisations, private sector and civil society cooperate ahead of the signature of an agreement expected at the end of 2024. Roughly 12 million tonnes of plastic are released annually into the oceans, while microplastics have been found in the human body, potentially causing non-communicable diseases.

Read more: Switzerland and Ecuador call for treaty to end ‘plastic crisis’ at Davos meeting

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organizations’ director general, told heads of state, ministers and other diplomats at the Swiss-sponsored event that the WHO could do more to help identify the life-cycle impacts of plastic on human health.

A separate presentation at the House of Switzerland had Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights and Mirjana Spoljaric Egger, the new head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, underscore the importance of Geneva to human rights and international humanitarian law, and as a place where divisiveness and polarisations may be discussed and resolved.

“The relevance of Geneva is for today’s form of multilateralism,” Spoljaric Egger said. “Multilateralism is an international cooperation that puts human development at the centre, because human development is the best form of ensuring security. We put science, we put socio-economic development, we put progress to the service of humanity.”

Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation, worried about attempts to weaken multilateralism, saying her country would like to see a “return to the real respect of the United Nations and the role that it should play in promoting ethos and values”.

“We must ensure that multilateralism is not a multilateralism of the privileged. It is a multilateralism that includes everyone,” she added.

Other international organisations, including the World Trade Organization as well as Washington-based World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and the World Food Programme, based in Rome, were also invited to the WEF this week.

Squeezed out or embraced?

Stopping by Davos on Wednesday, UN secretary general António Guterres did not mince his message to corporate leaders. He said that, given big oil’s “big lie” about climate change that the energy industry peddled after it knew of the impact of fossil fuels on climate change, they must be held accountable for their deceptions.

“More and more businesses are making net zero commitments. But benchmarks and criteria are often dubious or murky,” he said, adding that false narratives are being peddled, leaving “the door wide open to greenwashing”.

Among the WEF’s top-paying strategic partners are energy companies Chevron, Aramco, SOCAR as well as energy trader Trafigura, the Bahrain Economic Development Board and the Qatar Investment Authority. Large delegations from Gulf oil producers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also present in Davos.

Climate youth activists, regulars at the yearly climate summits but not part of Davos guests this year, were even more direct. In an emotional speech on Thursday, Ugandan Vanessa Nakate spoke about how she witnessed dying children on the frontlines of climate change, suffering from food insecurity.

Helena Huaringa, an Indigenous climate leader from Ecuador said: “There are people in Davos who are enabling (the climate crisis) through government and through investing in fossil fuels. This is criminal behaviour.”

Considering the official Davos guest list, Davide Rodogno, an academic advisor at the Graduate Institute, told Geneva Solutions that the WEF selects or “co-opts” individuals capable of contributing to its ambition “suggesting” to the world of how things should be done. However, because that agenda is determined by whatever suits its corporate sponsors, “there is a degree of posturing, in that ‘we are doing this not just for us, but for all of us’.”

Rodogno, who this week gave a public lecture on events that are unmissable for advocates, said that one can ask whether invited guests “are there to actually participate in conversations or are invited as tokens”.

Read more: WEF only ‘about tweaking the system’: rogue business leaders call for real wealth distribution

A former diplomat told Geneva Solutions he felt saddened at what he felt was the “squeezing out” of International Geneva’s valour and messages from Davos. He also expressed scepticism on what the meeting can achieve amid a radically changed world, now facing acute crises while corporate interests increasingly come into question.

View from the valley

Some, like Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, WEF vice chairman, who has attended Davos since 1995, have a more optimistic opinion. The former CEO of Nestlé told Geneva Solutions that the forum has “transformed itself from a convening power – which Davos is a good example of – to an impact forum.”

He said members have to engage throughout the year on various platforms where initiatives are discussed, solutions sought and action taken. “They have to perform, they are measured, and they report back.”

Brabeck-Letmathe is also chairman of the Geneva Science and Diplomacy Anticipator (GESDA) that works with scientists on breakthroughs that can be used, together with diplomacy, to resolve global issues.

He said that it has “always been the role of the WEF to have open discussions” about global issues, and noted the adoption earlier this month by 130 multinationals of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) metrics.

Over the years, Davos has seen a number of global initiatives emerging from its talks. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) was launched at its 2000 edition, as was the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), a public-private initiative to fight epidemics, in 2017.

As the forum attempts to bring together multilateral organisations with the private sector, some of its Davos panels are clearly focused on promoting business rather than substantively discussing crises on the ground. An event on Tuesday on the Logistics of Aid saw Carla Haddad Mardini, Unicef’s director of private fundraising and partnerships, representing the aid sector, largely squeezed out of discussing the agency’s actual needs and urgencies, with the business models of technology giant Accenture and Dubai-based logistics firm taking the spotlight.

But for Peter Bakker, another Davos regular and president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the WEF should not be confused with the aims of its international neighbours in Geneva. WBCSD describes itself in its website as a group of over 200 multinationals “working collectively to accelerate the system transformations needed for a net-zero, nature positive, and more equitable future”.

“It’s a different animal,” Bakker said.”It’s a unique convening place, where subsets of people come together, while many people are worried now about geopolitics.”