Political and economic problems loom heavily over the global elite as they gather at Davos for the World Economic Forum. But is there any political will to fix them?
Globalisation on the rocks?
The World Economic Forum sees its role as “improving the state of the world”. But the political analyst and author Anand Giridharadas speaks for many critics when he dubs Davos “a family reunion for the people who broke the world”.
After decades championing globalisation, the WEF now fears that rising inequality, protectionism and nationalist politics could send the world economy “sleepwalking” into another crisis.
As the WEF’s founder, Klaus Schwab, puts it: “Globalisation produces winners and losers and there are many more winners in the last 24, 25, 30 years – but now we have to look after the losers, those who have been left behind.”
Schwab will be pushing politicians and business chiefs towards a new “inclusive” globalisation to fix the gap between the “precariat” many and the privileged few. But will this address the concerns of the many millions who feel the system is rigged against them, and who will never make the trek to Davos?
Realistically, the WEF will be wrestling with the same problems in 2020 … and 2021 … and beyond.
Climate change crisis
After years of warnings, most business leaders, politicians and economists seem to have got the message. Climate change and extreme weather events have rocketed to the top of the list of dangers facing the world economy, according to the WEF’s annual survey of global risks.
Unfortunately, worsening international relations and rising nationalism means it’s even harder to get global agreement to address the problem, even though California’s wildfires and Europe’s recent floods have shown the human and economic cost of inaction.
Fortunately, the WEF can turn to Sir David Attenborough to drive the message home. The broadcaster and naturalist (at 92, the oldest delegate risking Davos’s treacherously icy pavements) will address delegates – and warn that “never has an understanding of the natural world been so important to ensure a safe future for our planet”.
The WEF has made mental health a key theme at Davos this year. The forum will address fears that depression, anxiety and other mental health problems are rising, and being neither measured correctly nor properly addressed.
Prince William will challenge business leaders to improve emotional and mental wellbeing in their workplaces. He’s appearing on a “mental health matters” panel alongside the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern.
Kensington Palace says the Duke of Cambridge will “use the opportunity to highlight his belief that the world’s major employers have a vital role to play in promoting mentally healthy societies and workplaces”.
The China slowdown
Hopes that Davos might deliver a breakthrough in the US-China trade war were dashed when Donald Trump benched the entire White House delegation on Friday.
In their absence, Wang Qishan, China’s vice-president, will give a special address. Behind the scenes, Wang will be pressed about how much damage the US trade war is causing, and whether China’s economy is slowing as quickly as some economists fear.
It’s just a shame that the US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin; the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo; the secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross; and the US trade representative, Robert Lighthizer, will not be there.
The rise of populism
The new wave of populist leaders will be rubbing padded snow jackets with more mainstream politicians.
Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new right-wing president, will fill Trump’s snow boots by giving a special address on Tuesday, allowing him to set the agenda for the opening day.
Bolsonaro said he would be presenting “a different Brazil, free of ideological ties and widespread corruption”. His tax cuts and privatisations are popular with investors, so Davos will probably give him a rousing reception. Human rights groups, though, would like to challenge Bolsonaro on his autocratic policies and recent loosening of gun laws.
George Soros, scourge of the populists, will probably take a few potshots at the absent Trump. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, won’t catch them in person, though – he’s remaining in Paris to hold a national debate in response to the gilets jaunes crisis.
Theresa May is another Davos no-show, choosing to stay with the Brexit crisis in Westminster. Philip Hammond is expected to attend, and will get his ear bent by increasingly anxious UK business leaders worried about no deal.
The WEF will hold a session on Brexit; wisely, they’ve held it back until the end of the week. As of Friday, no speakers had been named either …
The PM might not mind missing out, given her distaste for the “citizens of the world” who flock to Davos each year.