The World Economic Forum defines its mission as improving the state of the planet. Yet when it gathers 2,500 of the global elite in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos from Sunday, the backdrop will be war in Ukraine, an unresolved pandemic, growing climate risks and a rapidly souring economic outlook.
Even WEF founder Klaus Schwab acknowledged the question hanging over this year’s annual meeting at a briefing this week: “How can Davos make a positive contribution to all those challenges in a world which is deeply stuck in crisis management?”
That period has shaken the system Davos represents and injected a rare note of self-doubt. One theme running through the sessions is whether the system of globalisation and collaboration for which it stands still works.
Here’s what to watch for at what Schwab is billing as the most consequential annual meeting since the WEF’s creation in 1971.
History books will record Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “the breakdown of the post-World War II and post-Cold War order,” Schwab predicted earlier this week. He has barred Russian politicians and executives from the meeting, which Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will address via video on Monday.
Other Ukrainian ministers will meet western leaders including Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and German chancellor Olaf Scholtz.
The big question will be whether delegates can make progress on Marshall plan-style investments in Ukraine’s eventual reconstruction. Expect talks on further sanctions, how to handle Ukrainian refugees, and how to stem a food crisis spreading from the traditional “bread basket” of Europe.
We are in the throes of a worrisome moment for the world economy.
European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde, US commerce secretary Gina Raimondo and about 50 finance ministers will be under pressure to deliver new solutions to the challenges of soaring inflation and recession fears.
Rising interest rates and spiking energy costs are exacerbating long-term Davos concerns including the need to tackle inequality and to provide workers with new skills. Look for initiatives to drive “a jobs recovery”.
Averting climate change
The top concerns in the WEF’s global risks report this January, as in early 2020, captured elites’ fears that governments, businesses and financiers are doing too little to avert irreversible climate change.
Spiking energy prices following the invasion of Ukraine have added a new fear: that countries trying to wean themselves off Russian gas will fall back on coal.
Chinese climate envoy Xie Zhenhua will meet his US counterpart John Kerry. But with relations between Washington and Beijing tense, can they build on pledges made at November’s COP 26 climate summit?
Amid warnings that net zero pledges have not delivered the surge in investment needed to cut emissions, delegates will be pushed to show more action.
Preparedness for future pandemics
At the WEF’s last in-person meeting in January 2020, delegates knew that China was in the grip of a novel coronavirus, but few of them could imagine how Covid-19 would affect them.
Davos 2022 is anxious to avoid a repeat, scheduling several meetings on preparedness. Expect announcements on new monitoring systems, and a focus on providing more vaccines to the poorest, least immunised populations. A new consortium — bringing together ministers, executives and international organisations — will “accelerate collective action across key resilience drivers for the global economy”.
Capitalists confront sceptics
Executives’ concerns this year range from the “great resignation” to how to make supply chains less vulnerable. Overlaying such issues, though, are questions about the direction in which capitalism will head.
The WEF believes the system can adapt to meet the challenge of climate change. But with investors warming again to oil stocks, and sceptics like Elon Musk declaring ESG “a scam”, many doubt that is the case.
This year’s meeting will try to ground what most Davos-goers see as good intentions in more demanding metrics.
Will Davos still be Davos?
Winter Davos features an icy Promenade, fondue dinners and heaving corporate parties. There will be no snow on the ground in May and smaller delegations from banks and once feted crypto businesses. Some larger parties, held by the likes of JPMorgan and McKinsey, are not happening.
One recurring theme, though, will be protests outside the security perimeter, and suspicion about what goes on inside it. A new book called Davos Man lambasts executives who advocate a positive social role but then lobby for lower corporate taxes.
The WEF has also been trying to hose down fresh conspiracy theories about its influence, spreading on sites such as 4chan. “They were not suddenly taken up: we saw a lot of amplification of them by state actors,” one WEF executive said this week.
Schwab himself seems unswayed by the questions over his creation. Davos, he argued, is the place to understand the world “in its systemic complexity”.