WEF: Back to the Basics?

Concerned over widening geopolitical fissures, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has embarked on a quest to map and leverage global commonalities. The 2018 WEF summit in Davos centres on Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World. The organisers note that economic prosperity and social cohesion are no longer twin values. In a nod to the rise of cold pragmatism, they also acknowledge that realpolitik has now found applications outside its original Cold War realm.

Interestingly, the WEF also finds that the social media-driven ballooning of the chattering classes has not led to a corresponding increase in mutual understanding – or the emergence of a collective purpose. If anything, the internet in all its guises has shown humanity to be at cross-purposes. The annual get together of global powerbrokers and their hangers-on in the Swiss Alpine resort – billed as a “true summit of summits” – is to kick start the repair of the global commons.

All the usual suspects – Ginni Rometty, Christine Lagarde, et al – are present to make the case for a renewed and vigorous commitment to international collaboration. Over 2,500 others from nearly all walks of life have been asked to attend the invitation-only event. The buzzword of the 2018 has also been set: multi-stakeholder collaboration, albeit without the hyphen to give the freshly-minted term a more contemporary look.

“It is for the benefit of that person going quietly about his/her business that the cognoscenti make their annual trek to Davos.”

In Davos, convoluted corporate jargon reaches new heights – or lows depending on the reader’s tolerance of twaddle. Take this wonderful example: “WEF communities and organisational capacity dedicated to driving positive change through 14 distinct System Initiatives, participants at the meeting will contribute to multiple agendas.” George Orwell would have a thing or two to say about that.

Small wonder then that the WEF in its brief of the event notes that citizens everywhere yearn for responsive leadership. Hint: this is probably not what the proverbial man/woman in the street imagines responsive leadership to look like. After all, it is for the benefit of that person going quietly about his/her business that the cognoscenti make their annual trek to Davos.

The 48th annual WEF general meeting struggles to focus on a viable course of action – or a set of well-defined topics – that appeals to an audience outside the rarefied atmosphere of its own collective. Apart from the specialist press, coverage of the proceedings is minimal and often limited to curious yet telling anecdotes such as the 1,700 or so private jets that ferry the VIPs to their Swiss mountain retreat where they then express grave concerns over global warming and concoct grand plans to limit CO2 emissions.
But, those sour grapes of the pathetically private-jet-deprived majority must not be allowed to stand in the way of the common good or the WEF mission to make the world a better place. How can anybody be against such a noble pursuit? Oxfam, always ready to play ball, will undoubtedly remind the assembled high-flyers that just a few dozen of them own half the world’s assets.

Enough already of the negativism and onto “system leadership via platform engagement.” Huh? In Davos, there are no less then fourteen system initiatives that all aim to “shape the future” in a particular segment such as economic progress, food security, mobility, production, and consumption – to take but a sample. Via these system initiatives – workgroups just hasn’t got the same ring to it – the World Economic Forum deploys its organisational capacity – including its formidable “convening power, insight generation, and platform technology” – to drive change.

Despite its reluctance to deflate its onerous language – a spade is just that and not a human-powered earth moving implement – the WEF has an important, perhaps even crucial, role to play. Originally conceived as an informal gathering where the world’s movers and shakers could lower their guard, engage in chitchat, share a few drinks and meals, and voice their frustrations, the WEF has now become a venue for grandstanding, posturing, and talking down to the little man/woman. This is most decidedly not what Klaus Schwab – the likeable German professor who founded the forum – had in mind when he first invited a few friends and acquaintances for a meet up in Davos.

Tone down the self-aggrandising rhetoric, return to the basics, do as you preach, set more modest goals, and connect with the people and issues that cause concern. In other words: instead of charting the erosion of the social contract between states and their citizens – yet another pearl from the 2018 meeting’s brief – set an example by addressing universal concerns such as the absurd level of inequality and the prevalence of rulers – both political and corporate – who make all the right noises but still refuse to do the right thing. That’ll be tuppence, please. i

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