The Annual World Economic Forum meeting which is traditionally in Davos took on a part physical, part digital approach this January and saw world leaders come together to address some of the most important topics and issues in the world today.
Held with the theme “The Great Reset” the event was perhaps one of the most important in history and captured the mood of the world today with many governmental and business leaders sharing their thoughts through a forward-looking dialogue. Coming together to define the post-COVID world through special addresses and open discussions the Forum looked at topics such as the economic crisis, sustainability, health and technology. We discover some of the highlights from global leaders who shared their thoughts and interesting insights into the future.
Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum opened day one of the event by declaring “We need a mindset change to move away from a society where business and government have separate tasks to one in which they, together with civil society, work hand in hand,” This was echoed by Xi Jinping President of China who was the first national leader to speak. He called for greater global efforts in the fight against an unprecedented public health crisis and offered a renewed commitment to multilateral cooperation.
António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, set out his priorities for an inclusive and sustainable recovery from the pandemic. In a wide-ranging address, he asserted that vaccines – “people’s vaccines” – should be regarded as a public good, pressed developed nations to offer their poorer counterparts debt relief because “no country should be forced to choose between basic services and serving debt”, and called for increased fairness in the world of work. He made a call for a “truly global coalition for carbon neutrality” and suggested the need for adaptation, renewed confidence and a need to drastically change policy. He pressed business to operate “in line with the Paris Agreement”, called on asset managers to “decarbonize their portfolios” and asked all businesses to “align with the UN Global Compact”. In addition, Guterres announced the need for a new social contract, one “between governments, peoples, civil society, businesses and more, integrating employment, sustainable development, social protection, and based on equal rights and opportunities for all”.
Anthony Fauci, Director at National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), followed in a discussion on how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and future such outbreaks. Fauci reflected on how divisiveness had hobbled the US approach to the disease, saying: “When public health issues become politically charged – like wearing a mask or not becomes a political statement – you can’t imagine how destructive that is to any unified public health message.”
He called on China to provide the World Health Organization (WHO) with information about the origin of COVID-19, arguing that without it, scientists and doctors faced a “big black box”. He also registered the US’s renewed support for the WHO and said that with reform, it will become the multilateral organization that deals with disease preparedness. His overall message, however, was one of the need for greater global health security, transparency, collaboration and solidarity, without which he announced: “it becomes extremely problematic to address an outbreak”.
In other sessions during day one, President of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde said economic recovery in 2021 will progress in two phases. In the first, there will be a high level of uncertainty as vaccines are produced and rolled out, and lockdown measures may become more stringent because of the emerging COVID-19 variants. She described it as “crossing the bridge to recovery, but the journey is delayed, not derailed”.
The second phase is where the economy is reopening, something that will bring its own challenges and positive developments. As part of the recovery, Lagarde underlined the need to bring more women to the table to help the recovery, saying: “Progress can be made and women can do the job just as well as men.”
Bruno Le Maire, Minister of the Economy, Finance and the Recovery of France, argued that while pursuing a policy of fiscal support during the pandemic, nations should also consider the future. “We have to think about the kind of economy we want to build; we want to build a sustainable economy and reduce the inequalities,” he said. Le Maire also called on states to learn lessons from each other during the crisis. As he pointed out, for the first time in its history, the member states of the Eurozone have all taken the same measures. Underlining the day’s theme – Designing cohesive, sustainable and resilient economic systems – the meeting saw the launch of the Partnering for Racial Justice in Business initiative, which sees a coalition of almost 50 organizations committed to improving racial and ethnic justice in the workplace. The Forum released a report revealing that upskilling has the potential to boost GDP by $6.5 trillion by 2030. Also covered during the day were topics ranging from gender parity and restoring economic growth to addressing mental health in the workplace, building crisis-resistant healthcare systems and creating a new social contract.
Day two saw world leaders call for greater collaboration and issued warnings of the perils awaiting if we do not. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, called for a “Paris-style agreement for biodiversity”, laying out in stark terms the economic and social risks of failing to protect a high-functioning biodiverse ecosystem. She warned that issues – ranging from climate change and the pandemic to the lack of social media governance – pose a challenge to democracy, showing the “limitations of the old ways of working”. According to von der Leyen, the global push to create a vaccine – something that was achieved in 10 months rather than over several years – reveals what happens with “pooled resources, shared expertise, manufacturers working together and government finance”. The European Commission president urged greater collaboration, arguing that we need to understand that “it is not weakness to reach and help each other, but strength.”
Angela Merkel, Federal Chancellor of Germany, reflected on how the “pandemic has left deep imprints on economies and our societies,” and will “determine how we live and do business in the next few years.” She focused on multilateralism and collaboration, arguing that the pandemic has shown “how much we are interlinked, how globally interdependent,” warning that “trying to isolate yourself fails.” Reflecting this, the German chancellor announced that “this is the hour of multilateralism,” which for her means greater transparency in global relations, as well as better supporting developing nations. Merkel declared that “development cooperation is in our national interest.”
Like a number of the speakers, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, used the word “vulnerable” to describe the human condition. He argued that the pandemic has shown that the “capitalist model can no longer work” and suggested that “we can’t build anything without reaping the benefits and learning the lessons of COVID-19.” Macron placed humans at the centre of this, saying: “You cannot think ‘economy’ without thinking about human beings,” adding that it will only be possible to address the pandemic with an economy that fights inequality. Considering the economy of tomorrow, the French president said that in addition to considering innovation and humanity, it would have to build competitiveness while also fighting climate change and reducing CO2 emissions. He urged companies to play a role in fighting inequality in society and to take responsibility for mitigating the effects of climate change and stressed how French businesses are already working hard to establish clear ESG metrics.
Cyril M. Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, set the tone for the day, describing how the economic challenges presented by COVID-19 had sped up the process of restructuring his nation’s economy. “The issue of collaboration, of working cohesively, has underpinned the plan,” he said. He argued that people rather than COVID-19 have created the challenges now faced, perhaps exemplified in the over- ordering of vaccines by wealthier nations leaving poorer countries and their populations facing shortages. He was, however, positive about future collaboration among African countries, describing the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) as “a revolutionary, sea change initiative … possibly the most important initiative the African continent has undertaken.” Ramaphosa used his address to call on countries that have bought up large supplies of vaccines for COVID-19 to release the excess. He said that a vaccine acquisition task force had been created, but that its work had so far only been marginally successful. Speaking in a related session, John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), warned of a second aggressive wave of COVID-19 in the region and, underlining the South African president’s comments, said: “We as a continent must recognize that vaccines will not be here when we want them so we must focus on the public health measures that we know work while we’re waiting.”
War was on the agenda during the third day of The Davos Agenda in the form of action on climate change and the threat of conflict as a result of the pandemic. John Kerry, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, National Security Council (NSC) said “we are in a decisive decade for action.” He focused on the race to make wholesale change and the fact that the Biden administration has placed addressing climate change at the heart of its policy and “is totally committed to this fight”. He apologized for the US absence from the climate change agenda in the past four years, saying: “We rejoin the international climate effort with humility and ambition. Humility because we know we’ve wasted four years in which we were inexcusably absent; humility because we know no country and no continent is getting the job done.”
Moon Jae-in, President of the Republic of Korea, spoke about his nation’s impressive response to COVID-19, with its focus on ensuring that everyone – particularly the vulnerable – had been given support and medical access. He also reaffirmed his country’s commitment to combating climate change through its Green New Deal and 2050 carbon-neutral pledge. In the face of challenges, the president’s tone was positive: “Even now as we are living through the pandemic, humanity is overcoming hunger, disease and war and practising the shared values of freedom, democracy, humanitarianism and multilateralism, taking one step forward at a time.”
Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, gave several stark warnings about the possibility of conflict because of modern- day challenges. He said: “All of this cannot but impact on international relations, making them less stable and less predictable. International institutions are weakening, regional conflicts are multiplying, global security systems are degrading.” He suggested this made a “heated conflict” like the Second World War “not possible, I hope, in principle” because this would lead to “the end of our civilization”. The Russian president also cautioned that “the situation might develop unpredictably and uncontrollably if we sit on our hands doing nothing to avoid it.” He argued for the need to “restore global, national economies affected by the pandemic, ensure this restoration is sustainable in the long term and has a quality structure”.
Mark Carney, United Nations Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance, switched the focus to policy. He highlighted the advantages of a voluntary carbon offset market, which he argued would achieve four things: being complementary to a company’s efforts to reduce absolute emissions; catalytic for projects in emerging and developing economies; cross-border, thereby attracting companies looking for high-quality offsets in these types of economies; and with the potential – if properly structured – for “enormous co-benefits for biodiversity, co-benefits for other SDGs.”
Two ministers also spoke about climate-change policy. Grant Shapps, Secretary of State for Transport of the United Kingdom, said: “Our plan is to build back better. Fundamental to that plan is to decarbonize”, with a zero-emission aviation sector expected well before 2050. Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment of the People’s Republic of China, assured participants that China is doing all it can. He said: “There will be a road map and actions, which will be rolled out. We will strengthen our efforts to push coal consumption to reach the peak as early as possible. All this will be done to achieve the strategic objective to achieve carbon neutrality in 2060.”
And finally, was the issue of racism as the Forum launched a coalition of organisations committed to improving racial and ethnic justice in the workplace. 48 organisations representing 13 industries, with more than 5.5 million employees worldwide and with headquarters in three continents have committed to building more equitable and just workplaces. The Partnering for Racial Justice in Business initiative, which will see a coalition of organizations commit to building equitable and just workplaces for professionals with under-represented racial and ethnic identities. The initiative has been designed to operationalize and coordinate commitments to eradicate racism in the workplace and set new global standards for racial equity in business. It also provides a platform for businesses to collectively advocate for inclusive policy change.
“With just 1% of Fortune 500 companies led by Black chief executives, the need to tackle racial under-representation in business is urgent and obvious. To design racially and ethnically just workplaces, companies must confront racism at a systemic level, addressing not just the structural and social mechanics of their own organizations, but also the role they play in their communities and the economy at large. The Partnering for Racial Justice in Business initiative provides an effective platform for businesses to take individual and collective action towards racially and ethnically just workplaces,” said Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director at the World Economic Forum.