The 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos ended back on January 19th. My take on the results of some 400 sessions is bleak and disdainful. My thoughts are as follows:
The 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum last month in Davos, Switzerland, was a bust. Its results reminded me of Shakespeare’s take on the supposed great and glorious (and all of us as well):
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
The meeting was convened to provide leadership in solving the trust deficit dragging humanity down into war, beggar-thy-neighbor economics and despair. Its theme was “Rebuilding Trust.”
The Forum promised that it would “provide a crucial space to focus on the fundamental principles driving trust, including transparency, consistency and accountability.” That privileged “space” was to be occupied by over 100 governments, all major international organizations, 1,000 Forum partners, as well as civil society leaders, experts, youth representatives, social entrepreneurs and news outlets.
“We must rebuild trust – trust in our future, trust in our capacity to overcome challenges and most importantly, trust in each other,” said Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum. “Trust is not just a feeling; trust is a commitment to action, to belief, to hope.”
And what had happened by the end of the meeting: nothing of note.
The consulting firm McKinsey wrote a report listing the 10 key takeaways from Davos 2024:
“Despite seemingly endless geopolitical and economic uncertainty, global business leaders are coming away from Davos cautiously optimistic about 2024. While challenges and surprises remain inevitable, opportunities abound. This was a common theme at the 54th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, where delegates from global business, government, civil society, media and academia convened to focus on the fundamental principles driving trust.”
The key takeaways, as proposed by the McKinsey observers, were:
1. Speed is crucial to outperformance.
2. Cooperation is multifaceted and can coexist with competition.
3. The generative AI revolution is only just beginning.
4. Sustainability is a business imperative.
5. Better women’s health is correlated with economic prosperity.
6. A comprehensive approach to transformation is most effective.
7. Business leaders need to focus on matching top talent to the highest-value roles.
8. The best CEOs leave organizations in a better place than they found them.
9. Performance and diversity are not mutually exclusive.
10. Don’t overlook India’s potential.
What does all this have to do with building trust or preventing the meltdown of trust? Nothing.
The World Economic Forum’s press office provided this “uplifting” summary of the meeting:
- At a moment of growing fragmentation and polarization, the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting 2024 served as a platform for advancing dialogue, cooperation and action-oriented partnership.
- Nearly 3,000 leaders from government, business and civil society from more than 125 countries, including 350 heads of state and government and ministers, participated in the meeting and connected across diverse viewpoints on key issues.
- Participants advanced new ideas and initiatives to increase resilience and security, revive economic growth, protect the climate and nature, balance innovation and guardrails for technology and invest in jobs, skills and health.
What does any of that do to build the intangible social capital of trust or prevent the erosion of that asset?
On building trust, “world leaders” at the Forum offered the following platitudes:
“Geopolitical divides are preventing us from coming together around global solutions for global challenges,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres.
“It is essential that we discard prejudice, bridge differences and work as one to tackle the trust deficit,” said Li Qiang, Premier of the People’s Republic of China.
“The world is not at a single inflection point; it is at multi-inflection points,” warned Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission. She urged countries to “deepen global collaboration more than ever before.”
Ajay S. Banga, President of the World Bank Group, emphasized the interconnectedness of crises. “We cannot think about eradicating poverty without caring about climate. We cannot think about eradicating poverty without thinking about healthcare. We cannot think about eradicating poverty without thinking about food insecurity and fragility.”
“We have a responsibility to be stewards of our beautiful, small planet’s future,” said Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. “There is something that leaders need to embrace,” she added, “and it is the responsibility to act, even if it’s not popular.”
French President Emmanuel Macron called for world leaders to “be realistic, but be optimistic” about addressing the complex challenges of peace and security, jobs and decarbonization. “I truly believe that the decisions that can change things are within our hands,” he said.
“I can’t think of a time when there’s been both a greater multiplicity and greater complexity of the challenges that we’re dealing with, “said Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State.
On the role of the meeting in providing a space for diplomacy and diverse viewpoints, Børge Brende, President of the World Economic Forum, said: “The annual meeting serves as a vital platform for inclusive dialogue, bringing together parties to identify pathways toward achieving shared priorities.”
This collective “wisdom” should bring to our minds T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Hollow Men”:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.
So, where are our effective global leaders? Might you, reader, be one?