For one week every year, some of the world’s richest business people and most powerful politicians descend on the Alpine ski town of Davos, Switzerland. They’re here for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, which bills itself as the premiere global forum for the public and private sectors to join forces to “drive tangible, systemic change for the future”.
But systemic change would require them to give up some of their wealth and power, like paying their fair share of taxes, or ending the stranglehold a few, mostly Western countries have over the UN’s Security Council. All the proposals for a more equitable world order that we’ve heard on this season of the podcast depend on those who have power giving some of it up. Are they willing to do so?
Critics say the global elite’s eagerness to solve the world’s problems lasts only as long as the solutions don't threaten their said wealth and power.
So how are movements to reshape global governance landing with those who represent the status quo? And can advocates and campaigners for change ever really sway the global elite?
Host Heba Aly takes the pulse at Davos to find out.
Hear from UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima, Opens Society Foundations President Mark Malloch Brown, former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, president of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation Vilas Dhar, director general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation Patricia Danzi, and others.
Klaus Schwab: Your Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, distinguished heads of state and government, dear partners and friends of the World Economic Forum, a very cordial welcome to the 2023 Annual Meeting.
The World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting is a gathering place of the global elite. For one week every year, the snowy Swiss town of Davos is home to some of the world’s richest business people and most powerful politicians. But you’ll find more than CEOs and Prime Ministers here.
“Who are you all waiting for? Greta Thunberg. Oh, she’s in there?”
Davos is sometimes derided as a place for "movers and shakers" to see and to be seen, but it’s also become a strategic forum for humanitarians, activists and campaigners to try to influence the elite.
Agnès Callamard: The private sector is not doing enough. It’s not doing enough to protect us from falling into the abyss. You all have a responsibility. And we’ve heard so far many examples where those responsibilities are not fulfilled.
The World Economic Forum says its gathering wants to improve the state of the world, to create systemic change. But as we’ve discussed on this season of the podcast, systemic change would require the rich and powerful to give up some of that wealth and that power – like the ultra-rich paying their fair share in taxes, or ending the stranglehold that a few, mostly Western countries have over the UN’s Security Council.
So how are these movements to reshape global governance landing in a room full of its architects – the very same people who created this current model? And do advocates at Davos have any chance of swaying the global elite?
From Davos, Switzerland, this is Rethinking Humanitarianism. I’m your host Heba Aly.
Heba Aly: Hi. Do you know the fastest way to Davos Platz from here? Probably by shuttle…
I’ve been coming to Davos for five or six years now, and, full disclosure, in 2018, the World Economic Forum – or WEF – appointed me a Young Global Leader. That’s the term they use for a network of people under 40 that are driving change in the world. For several years, I served on one of its brain trusts: The Global Future Council for the Humanitarian System. I also moderate panel discussions at the forum. We’ve had debates internally at The New Humanitarian over whether I should participate. Why, as a newsroom committed to decolonising our journalism would we spend our time with the powerful and not the powerless?
Davos takes its name from the ski town in the Alps where the WEF’s Annual Meeting is hosted. But the word Davos has come to be synonymous with a gathering of the rich, the powerful, and the generally well-connected.
Heba Aly: Davos is the kind of place where you'll just run into to basically the world's biggest decision-makers at the coffee bar. Just saw Al Gore, the former US Vice President at a session next to John Kerry, the US climate envoy. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce is here. Rania Al-Mashat, the Egyptian Minister for international cooperation is just walking down the hall.
On Day 1 of the meeting, I receive in my inbox a Davos Daily Brief - from this 53rd Annual Meeting of the WEF. It tells me that one of the primary goals of the meeting is to “drive tangible, systemic change for the long-term.” This year’s theme is “Cooperation in a Fragmented World” – a renewed call for globalism in an age where war, pandemics, recessions, and other crises have made nations more inward-looking, and financial institutions more risk-averse. Davos, in a way, sees itself as a solution to this fragmentation. It bills itself as the premiere conference for influential public and private sector players to collaborate on solving the world’s most pressing issues – climate change is a big one, gender inequality, pandemic preparedness, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, you name it. But there’s a bit of hypocrisy in CEOs flying in by private jet to discuss climate change. I mean, one celebrity participant I met flew in by helicopter. Or the fact that the people who are most affected by these issues – people living under the poverty line, women, people of colour – are the least present at this invitation-only event. Criticism of the exclusiveness of the meeting has grown over the years. Even the U.S. Climate envoy John Kerry can’t help but point it out.
John Kerry: And when you stop and think about it, it’s pretty extraordinary that we – a select group of human beings, because of whatever touched us at some point in our lives – are able to sit in a room and come together and actually talk about saving the planet.
My first night at the Forum, I attend a welcome dinner for women at Davos sponsored by the Stellar Development Foundation, a nonprofit that uses blockchain to make money more accessible. Its CEO, Denelle Dixon, has this to say about the representation of women at Davos.
Denelle Dixon: According to a recent announcement, female representation at Davos peaked, it peaked at 24% in 2020... 24% in 2020. Now, that representation then also included spouses. [laughter].
In short, Davos is very white, very male, and very rich and powerful.
And attending Davos comes at a hefty cost. For businesses, it’s tens of thousands of dollars. Some reports say as high as $250,000. You can’t find a hotel room for the week for less than $2,000, and Twitter abounds with stories of $43-hot dogs or $60 bills for a caesar salad and soda. Though, to be fair, most participants eat for free every day at the multiple events offering food and drinks. But all of this amid a global cost of living crisis around the world. In the leadup to the conference, Oxfam released a report saying that since the pandemic hit in 2020, $42 trillion in new wealth has been created…. The richest 1% bagged two-thirds of that money.
And yet, over the years, I’ve watched the presence of activists and advocates grow at Davos. And note, it’s free for civil society representatives – when they’re invited. And these campaigners each use a diversity of tactics to bring racial, climate, and other issues to the fore. There are protestors outside of the conference itself.
“Are you ready to come together and take power from the rich?”
There are theatrics.
Heba Aly: "I just walked into what is called the SDG tent, a space where people talk about the future of the planet, sustainable development, and out comes a life-sized dinosaur making sounds and walking around to symbolise extinction and how we are all leading ourselves to extinction due to the climate crisis. To these lengths they have gone to make their point."
And then there are those who participate in the conference’s many panel discussions to deliver their message directly to the global elite.
Greta Thunberg: We are right now in Davos where basically the people who are mostly fueling the destruction of the planet, the people who are at the very core of the climate crisis, the people who are investing in fossil fuels, etc, etc. And yet somehow these are the people that we seem to rely on solving our problems where they have proven time and time again that they are not prioritising that. They are prioritising self-greed, corporate greed, and short-term economic profits above people and above the planet.
People like Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg seem to be hoping that by having a seat at the table, they can affect those with power and influence. But it’s not the first time attendees have heard these calls for a fairer world order. Decades on, Davos is still criticised for being elitist and out of touch. As the Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate puts it, what hasn’t been said?
Vanessa Nakate: Coming here, I didn't know exactly what my message would be, because what haven't we said, and what haven't we done? What haven't we, you know, communicated enough? The climate crisis is evident.”
So I wondered, why do advocates bother? Is anyone even listening? And how are proposals for a fairer world order – like those we’ve been exploring on the podcast – landing with those who represent the status quo? Is change possible?
Heba Aly: It can be a bit of a maze walking around this place. I'm currently on a 25-minute walk to a networking event that I missed the shuttle for. And you'll find a bunch of people with their private drivers dropping them off, picking them up from all the different locations.
Davos is a small town. During the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, it gets converted into a world of its own: the shops are taken over for the week by governments and companies promoting themselves; there are special WEF shuttles that run parallel to the public transport system; special police at every other street corner; and airport-like security at the entrance to the official congress centre. With the exception of skiers hitting the slopes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local resident amid all the folks wearing white badges around their necks and trying to navigate the snow in their big boots. In the warm of the Congress Centre where the official proceedings take place, I sit down with something of a Davos veteran. Someone who’s much better at navigating the vast expanse of pavilions and meeting rooms than I am.
Helen Clark: When you've been 13 times, at least you know where to find places and you know where you're most likely to run into people. It is an amazing networking place. Most people you want to see…
Helen Clark is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, the former head of the UN Development Programme, and now the chair of several advisory groups and foundations working on everything from environmental sustainability to drug policy. The day we meet, she’s woken up at 6 am to a flurry of WhatsApp messages and texts. One of her successors, Jacinda Ardern, has just resigned as Prime Minister of New Zealand. I ask Helen Clark what we should take from the fact that one of the most progressive leaders of our time says she doesn’t have any gas left in the tank.
Helen Clark: It's been a tough, tough time. And I think she's probably felt that the public support for what she represents, which is kind and enlightened leadership, wasn't there.
The rest of Helen Clark’s time at Davos is filled with panel discussions and meetings where she tries to push for cooperation on issues like women’s health and pandemic preparedness. At Davos, she tells me, a key part of the strategy is holding the private sector accountable.
Helen Clark: I think that independent voices from civil society are very important. Often, when we look at international agendas and the sign-up to them, we demand accountability from governments, but we should also demand accountability from corporations. It's not good enough just to sign up but then not to act. So I think this can be a bit of an accountability call-out. I see the wonderful advocates like Winnie Byanyima from UNAIDS, they don't let anything pass by. They call out ‘you committed to this, but you did that’…
Byanyima on WEF panel: We saw with the COVID pandemic how rich countries hoarded the COVID vaccines. They bought more than they could use. They left none for the rest of the world. Not only that, they also refused – rich companies and their governments – to share the technology so that others could produce for themselves and survive. Here they were making billions in profits, and here Africa and other parts of the South were dying.
Winnie Byanyima is indeed one of the most recognizable voices holding a mirror up to the global elite at the Forum.
Winnie Byanyima: Heba, I haven't quite made sense of the mood here. I arrived yesterday. But I come here with some big concerns that I want the business and political elites to know about and respond to.
She is the Executive Director of UNAIDS, the former head of Oxfam International, and a well-known Ugandan activist. She’s also shaped Davos’ agenda to a certain extent over the years. In 2015 she served as the co-chair of the Annual Meeting. So I catch up with the very soft-spoken Byanyima on Day 3 to ask: Why does she come to Davos?
Winnie Byanyima: Well, I've been coming here for very many years, as you know. This is a place where business, global business leaders, and political leaders meet, with the media around them as well, and influence each other. And they shape the economic agenda. So it's a powerful place of influence. That's why I come here, to bring voices of those who are excluded, who are not here - the majority who are people from developing countries - to get them to pay attention to the issues of concern. You find every issue under the sun being discussed, but you come with your own focus, and you choose the leaders you want to target, and you do your job, and you go home. And it can take a long time before they pick up an issue. But you have to be consistent and disruptive to get them actually to pay attention.
Okay, so tell us about your message that you're trying to bring to this audience.
Winnie Byanyima: The whole world is facing multiple crises, but I'm coming here to say that the poorest countries, the low-income countries of Africa, particularly, but also middle-income countries, are under so much pressure they are unable now to keep services going for their people because of the level of indebtedness. I'm calling for a comprehensive, multilateral legal framework for debt restructuring and relief. So I'm coming here to say to the rich countries “Come on, do what's right” because the widening inequalities— and their countries have done well. Many of the business elite here have made a lot of money. If you're a food company, or a fuel company, you’ve made money. And this money they have made is untaxed for many of them. They hardly are taxed. The taxation is all regressive, wealth is not taxed, and so even the rich countries themselves don't capture the results they need for their own people, leave alone what is extracted from the [Global] South and should stay in the [Global] South. The tax system doesn't work.
Byanyima isn’t alone in her efforts. Vilas Dhar is the President of the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, which tries to encourage more responsible use of artificial intelligence. A disclaimer here that the foundation is one The New Humanitarian’s donors. Like Winnie Byanyima and Helen Clark, Dhar sees Davos as a chance to call bullshit.
Vilas Dhar: Why are okay with the fact that we're still talking about how to fix poverty in the modern world? Poverty is a political choice, and somehow we're okay with continuing to make that choice over and over again…
But Dhar is also a former investor, so he brings a business mindset and solutions attitude to his meetings with the private sector.
Vilas Dhar: For me, this is a moment in time that actually lets us look at a broad set of corporate behaviours that have been particularly toxic, around labour, around environmental sustainability, around the ways that communicate what's happening to the populations they extract from in order to deliver to a consumer. We talk about a poly crisis, what we need is a poly solution. We need something that affects at the same time, human dignity, environmental support and sustainability, and good practices as a business that actually centre the dignity of all stakeholders, not just consumers and profit-makers.
Heba Aly: Is that message resonating? Walk me through some of those meetings in terms of the reactions you're getting.
Vilas Dhar: It's resonating in a surprising way. And I think some of that also is the context that we’re operating in today. It's no longer about ‘us versus them’ or business versus environmental stakeholders. I think the momentum and magnitude of the crises we're facing are convincing everybody that it's time for maybe a little bit of re-imagination: that a business leader can talk to a civil society leader and have a conversation that can lead to a productive outcome for both, rather than simply critiquing or attacking the practices of one or the other. Now, I know that sounds hopelessly optimistic, but I think change starts in moments like this, where again, we think about individuals not as institutions, but as those who have the agency to actually make one decision that makes the world slightly better.
Day 3: I meet up with Patricia Danzi, the director general of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It’s a government body that provides millions of Swiss francs in international aid to people in need. I’m struck by just how excited and inspired she is about the next event she’s headed to. It’s about Ukraine and how the country continues to provide digital public services to its residents, even in the midst of war.
Patricia Danzi: This is a really great event. It's absolutely fantastic [...] It gives hope that the ones that are in a bad situation are not necessarily the victims. They can also be the drivers of change. I like that a lot.
Like Dhar, Danzi comes to Davos to find common ground between the private and public sectors and to build partnerships.
Patricia Danzi: I think if you talk to private sector leaders, what they want are concrete proposals and concrete results. [The] private sector is very fast. We don't necessarily talk the same language all the time. And so to bring them a problem without discussing solutions, you may then lose interest. So that is one of the things that we are trying to do – concrete issues, concrete actions, on concrete projects. Of course, the private sector wants to make money, and maybe not necessarily today, but with a kind of view in the future when that may happen. Investment into water management or into climate will have to have a certain business model and to see when they are going to be paid back or when that investment pays back in one way or another. So we have to find the win-win proposal. And I think that is maybe not always the language we’re used to use…
Sometimes speaking the same language means taking the deal-making out of the meeting rooms and into the nightclubs. One evening, I end up at one of the infamous Davos nightcaps hosted at a golf club that’s been turned into a meeting place to discuss the Sustainable Development Goals. A DJ is spinning his tunes as fans approach a celebrity for a selfie. And over shots of whiskey, the celebrity is able to make headway with a US Senator about immigration reform. But others are more sceptical about whether meaningful deals can be made at Davos anymore.
Mark Malloch Brown: I think, actually, to be honest, the new Davos is quite deal light.
During a side event on global blindspots, in the basement of a shop-turned-event space, I bump into Mark Malloch Brown. He’s president of one of the world’s largest philanthropies, Open Society Foundations. He’s also a former UK Minister of State and the former UN Deputy Secretary-General. His feelings about Davos are a bit more measured.
Malloch Brown: Well, I've come and been coming for many years, always with sort of very mixed emotions about it, struggling to take Davos man and his pretensions, seriously. And yet, finding it an enormously efficient place to do business to meet a lot of people: ministers, political leaders, fellow civil society leaders. But also, it's a chance to put a finger in the wind and understand, for some powerful constituencies, which way for them, at least the wind is blowing.
There are, after all, reasons to question whether the global elite will ever change. For one thing, while the official programme is full of sessions about climate, COVID, and inequality, in the backroom meetings – and that’s the focus for most businesspeople here – these issues are reportedly not on the agenda. If anything, as I hear at one private dinner, CEOs are retreating from the social good agenda:
We're already seeing green hushing. We're seeing major multinational corporations stop talking about their net zero commitments so vocally. And inevitably, I think talk translates into action in both ways and a lack of vocal commitments on these issues, I fear, is going to translate into a lack of action in the years ahead.
In a crowded lobby in the Congress Centre, as I try to land one of the few lunch meals on offer, I end up next to Howard Meyers, the chairman of Quexco, an American holding company that invests in the oil and gas industry and was once the world’s largest producer of lead. I ask him a straightforward question, and he gives me a very straightforward answer.
Heba Aly: Have you heard anything here at Davos that has influenced your thinking, that has made you think differently about some of these social issues?
Howard Meyers: No.
Heba Aly: Why not?
Howard Meyers: Because, you know, you have you kind of have activists – you can call them whatever you want to call them – they don't affect what I'm …; they don't change what I'm going to do. And I don't think they have major effects. You know, a public company, they have effects. But I think that the public companies that I see – and I own shares at all the public companies – they're doing the right things.
Heba Aly: So what does affect or influence you? What does shape your decision-making?
Howard Meyers: At this stage in my life, nothing.
I mention this exchange to Winnie Byanyima, who is neither surprised nor thwarted by Meyers’ answer.
Winnie Byanyima: Change doesn't come from just conversation in one platform. It comes from people's struggles and claiming power. These mining companies have extracted so much from – and continue to extract from – the developing countries. They've got very smart ways to avoid paying, they damage the environment, and then they go. But all this is becoming less and less acceptable as people's lives become more miserable, people who live around mining areas. The fact is that people are reaching a limit on the exploitation of natural resources in many countries in the [Global] South, and us coming here and bringing them the facts and the voice is good. It disturbs them. We are disruptors here, and the disruption is important.
Another woman who considers herself a disruptor at Davos is Françoise Moudouthe. She’s a pan-African feminist and CEO of the African Women's Development Fund. At the end of the week, I ask her feelings about coming to Davos for the first time.
Françoise Moudouthe: Obviously, as a feminist activist, this is definitely a complicated space to process. It's very elitist. It's very closed. It can feel a bit out of touch. But I also think that there's a great opportunity to advance conversations. Let's just say, infiltrate conversations and ask tough questions and poke holes in the framing that exists. And that's what I've tried to do this week. And I think it's a bit uncomfortable, but it's a choice that we make to be out of our comfort zone. And so I think if more of us do that work of infiltrating, maybe we’ll get somewhere.
I’m kind of obsessed with this idea of how change happens. So I ask Helen Clark: When she was at the top levels of government, what was most effective in swaying her decision-making? She argues disruption is more effective when it comes from inside the halls of power, than from the picket lines outside.
Helen Clark: I think the shouting just gets dismissed. And, look, we've all been young once, right? We share the frustration young people feel about the state the planet is in. But my message to them is to go beyond calling it out and actually getting into the systems and structures where they can make their mark and make a difference, whether it's running for your local council, endeavouring to get on a party list and into a parliament somewhere – take your voices where it's going to have an impact. Standing on the other side of the street from the WEF shouting isn't going to influence anybody here. So that would be my message. As you say, I’ve been in government for a long time. I know that getting the kinds of changes required are not one swing of the wheel. But also, my experience in politics tells me that many small steps in the right direction add up to transformational change over time. And we have to just be taking one step after another towards the end that we want.
But does this strategy actually work? Does disruption from within the Davos walls yield any real change? That question troubles many of the advocates here. For them, the real concern with Davos goes beyond the hypocrisy of eating canapés while discussing hunger. They’re more worried about a really well-trodden critique: that for all the willingness of today’s titans of technology and finance to put climate change and income disparity centre stage, their eagerness to solve the world’s problems lasts only as long as the solutions don't threaten their own wealth and power. But Winnie Byanyima insists her presence at Davos can lead to incremental progress.
Heba Aly: I had spoken to an activist a few years back who said coming back here year after year, in the hope of influencing the Davos crowd is the definition of insanity, and we're not going to shift the needle like this. They argued there isn't any evidence that it's working. So what do you say to that?
Winnie Byanyima When I first throw back the question that: what then? What would that person propose? Because for me, the way that we can change the world, is to pile pressure on those with power to share the power they have with those who don't have it. Coming here as part of sharing that power, because in the glare of the media, I actually shame them. I put the issues there with stark figures of what is happening. For example, I’ve been repeating Oxfam data here, which they put out in their report this year, that the 1% captured two-thirds of all the wealth, new wealth created in the last two years. So they have the wealth, but it hasn't been taxed. And that at the same time, 1.7 billion people, their wages have been outpaced by inflation. So what's happening at the bottom is connected with the capture at the top. So, I think to expose this injustice is important to bring here. Otherwise, they just have a party and go away. And I don't believe that it is futile that they do not respond. I can remember when I first came here to talk about inequality, and they were saying it is not an issue. And a couple of years later, they were making it a part of their agenda. Quite a number of the companies now had to face the issue and begin talking about: how do we address it? The solutions are not strong, but we are not where it was denied. These same leaders. I meet them in different places. And just sitting there with Coca-Cola and remembering things that we did with them many years ago, challenging them about the injustice in their supply chains – how they were using water, how they are paying workers, how they are respecting the rights of women. We had a whole agenda where we were scoring them and asking them to step up. So—
Heba Aly: And did that result in change?
Winnie Byanyima: Yeah, quite a number of changes, actually. Quite a number of changes. I can remember one campaign we did around chocolate companies. We went out to those supermarkets and showed what women workers – it's mainly women workers on cocoa farms – were earning a pittance, and how hard the work was, and how little they earned, and how they were enjoying this chocolate because of the suffering of those women. The companies came round in no time at all to agree to our demands. So pressure works. I believe pressure works, and this is part of pressure when you come and say things in their face and then follow it up. You don't just stop here.
Vilas Dhar says that he, too, has seen a desire for change among a crowd that’s often seen as representing the status quo.
Vilas Dhar: I believe deeply with great optimism that people want the world to be better. And if it's not on the formal agenda, then we find ways to put it on the informal one. I think of communities like the social entrepreneurs that are here, the Young Global Shapers and the Young Global Leaders, and particularly the organisation of civil society that's represented here, as the ones who are actually helping to shape this conversation and making sure that it’s in front of those who, as you describe them, hold power. To make sure that this isn't something that's happening in isolation. And I have the optimism that when we think about the people here not as representing institutions of power, but individuals of moral conscience, then there's a way to start a conversation here with productive outcomes.
While at Davos this year, Dhar launches the Center for Trustworthy Technology. Its goal is to encourage the ethical use of technology, like AI. It’s one of many initiatives the WEF has launched from a Net Zero Industry Challenge, to an alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, to a commitment to conserve 1 trillion trees. At a press conference on Day 4, it launches yet another initiative: Uplink, a new platform to support what it calls “the ecopreneur revolution” – essentially entrepreneurs who want to make the world a better place.
Olivier M. Schwab: We all know we need four, five, six, $7 trillion per year to reach the UN SDG goals by 2030. And what if, what if some of that investment went to the thousands of entrepreneurs around the world who are working on the ground on tackling ocean degradation, education, deforestation, various levels of pollution? What if we could make that happen? But these entrepreneurs do not only need investment; they also need connections. They need commercial opportunities. They need support so that they can scale their solutions for their communities. And that's what Uplink is about.
But many argue these kinds of initiatives are a drop in the bucket when big business continues to profit from the pandemic and fuel the climate crisis. In an angry speech at Davos, UN Secretary-General António Guterres points out that oil and gas companies knew they were burning the planet decades ago.
António Guterres: We learned last week that certain fossil fuel producers were fully aware in the 70s that their core product was baking our planet. And just like the tobacco industry, they rode rough-shod over their own science. Some in Big Oil peddled the big lie.
So are the feel-good WEF initiatives just PR that hides a much uglier reality? To be fair, some have had tangible impacts. For instance, more than twenty years ago, GAVI - the Vaccine Alliance - was launched at Davos. Since then, it has immunised millions of children and helped ship more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines around the world. But some civil society representatives worry that their presence here risks legitimising an approach that avoids real transformation of the system – a system that benefits the elite and that caused most of the world’s problems in the first place. As one person working for social change told me at Davos a few years ago: “Us being here – isn’t it hiding the real issues?” I asked the WEF’s John Dutton, who heads up the Uplink platform, about this tension.
John Dutton: Yes, you're right. There's big business here that is part of where we've gotten in terms of the planetary crisis. But we're also seeing that we need to bring together the coalitions of government [and] business actors to try to change policy, and we think inspiring them with some of these innovations can make a big difference in changing those policies and the opportunities that they have.
But that got me wondering: even if some of the world’s powerful are beginning to embrace a different way forward on climate, would they ever be open to the more radical proposals for change, like the ones we’ve heard on the podcast? climate reparations, or reforming international financial institutions to make it easier for countries in the Global South to access financing on a fairer playing field. Well, it’s governments that are shareholders of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – they’re the ones who decide, and the more money they contribute, the more voting power they have. So I ask Patricia Danzi of Switzerland.
Patricia Danzi: You’re right, we’re shareholders and we try to bring in agenda items like climate decarbonisation. So that is some of the areas where we see where we take a global problem, and we see how the World Bank and IMF can have – slowly, it's not radical – slowly have an impact and better influence on what is done, and how money is invested, and what kind of projects are supported. So there, we try to have a real influence. So that is something that we have in our DNA that we bring to the areas, to the places, to the organs and organisations that we are part of. So that's how we influence.
Heba Aly: And how well does that strategy work? Where are you seeing results?
Patricia Danzi: We see results because we're not the only ones. Many countries see this need to actually have a different impact. We have constituencies that we work with, and so we see this because every country around the globe is impacted by climate change. Every country around the globe is impacted by increased prices and energy prices, and these challenges... it's just global. So when we bring it, and again with a concrete action, what should be done, it has the best chance to move ahead.
On the last day of Davos, participants are atop the Shatzalp mountain taking selfies during a farewell lunch. I run into Børge Brende, president of the World Economic Forum. He’s a former Norwegian foreign minister, former head of the Norway Red Cross – so he understands politics, aid, and business. He’s also the second most powerful man at the WEF, after its founder Klaus Schwab. He spends the week at Davos in and out of meetings with CEOs, government leaders, and heads of international organisations. He says there is a desire to change the world’s international financial architecture, including from countries that are bigger and more powerful than Switzerland.
Børge Brende: I feel that the owners have an appetite because I was in meetings with the Samantha Powers of the world of USAID, I was also with the Norwegian development minister, [and] other ministers saying: “This cannot continue.” So I think also based on the [UN Secretary General’s] speech, I think there is a drive there, we will see what can happen in the Spring Meetings. But this cannot continue. The World Bank also has to take more responsibility on climate.
Heba Aly: But what you're hearing from the shareholders of the World Bank is that they are ready for change?
Børge Brende: I think many of them are. Let's see; seeing is believing. But what I heard here is that there is a new momentum. And I think they're being very criticized for not being also ready enough to invest in those areas…
So enlightened altruism or self-preservation? Helen Clark tells me that part of the driver for change is a fear of becoming irrelevant.
Helen Clark: One of my roles is chairing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, and it was set up to drive corruption out of the oil, gas, and mineral sectors through strengthening governance capacity, requiring beneficial ownership disclosure, contract disclosure, payments disclosure, and the rest of it. So in this role, I interact a lot with these companies. And what I see is that, while they will almost certainly work to preserve a profit flow from oil and gas as long as they can, they are also investing elsewhere. They see the writing on the wall. The European Union has become extremely serious about decarbonisation. Others will follow. The energy transition is going to happen, and these companies aren't going to let themselves be left high and dry – they owe that to their shareholders. So even though there's been a lot of denial, a lot of not facing up to what they know science has been saying, nonetheless, they know they're on a limited timeframe.
Winnie Byanyima sees it as a process of building support outside of Davos to force change inside of Davos.
Winnie Byanyima You’re saying buy-in, I don't call it buy-in, I think they make concessions. We have to force them to make concessions. They have captured wealth. They have captured political power. It is elite capture. When you're talking to these people here, you have to be pushing an idea that you know is growing in support and that they're going to make concessions because they've got to. Look at this girl Greta [Thunberg] and her movement. I think in Europe, those children have forced a realisation of the urgency of dealing with the climate crisis. So you come here, but you have also got to be out there building support for your ideas.
So she says a push is needed, and without it, the elite doesn’t have the incentive to change. Case in point: a few Davos’ ago, I spoke to a journalist-turned-analyst who said there still hadn’t been anywhere near enough soul-searching or deep thinking among the Davos crowd about what had gone wrong since the financial crisis of 2008, and why the decades of dominant liberal policy that preceded the crash didn’t deliver real progress for enough people. Perhaps for that reason, Mark Malloch Brown of OSF feels that, in many ways, this crowd is already irrelevant.
Mark Malloch Brown: 10, 15 years ago when I was in government or in the UN, we'd come here one year to sign up partners to a new initiative, and the next year, you'd launch the initiative. And you had a captive press corps and captive government leaders, and it was a great place to launch such initiatives. That side of Davos has become pretty empty, to be honest. I've been meeting with fellow foundation heads and think tank heads, but our focus is not on something to be announced at Davos, which is entirely the wrong forum for something like that. This is a good place for meeting people and having those kinds of conversations, but increasingly, as the world has moved on, it's not a place that you'd want to launch social justice or big, globally inclusive climate initiatives from. It's an increasingly narrow base, really, compared to the actors you really need around the table…
So are the rich and powerful willing or able to change their ways? Will the business and political elite ever be ready to give up some of their wealth and power so that resources and decision-making can be more equitably shared? Can the visions we have heard on this podcast of a fairer world order ever become reality? For Vilas Dhar, asking whether the powerful can be convinced to give up power is entirely the wrong question. He says it’s not about how to convince those who have the power to give it up, it’s about building alternative centres of power altogether.
Vilas Dhar: I think we never create new power by reacting to the bad actions of those who have it. I think instead, we organise ourselves – if we are the ones without power – and identify the ways that our creativity, our technological capacity, and our ability to form communities let us create new forms of political, social, and economic influence. That's the path forward that lets us create a world where we actually centre human dignity and aspiration.
At the end of the day, it’s clear to many that the changes that we have heard called for on this podcast aren’t going to come from the world’s elite. Mark Malloch Brown:
Mark Malloch Brown: I suspect part of the dawning awareness is [that] the solution to the problems of the world is not going to come here, it's not going to come from business elites talking to government elites. Any kind of really sustainable, global governance going forward, is going to need a much broader set of stakeholders and constituents than are assembled on this small mountaintop.
This podcast is a production of The New Humanitarian.
This episode was produced and edited by Melissa Fundira.
I’m your host, Heba Aly. I also reported the episode from Davos.
For more on my thoughts about the WEF and the relationship between civil society and the Davos elite, check out reflections I published when I first got involved with the WEF. We’ll post the link in the show notes at thenewhumanitarian.org/podcast.
That’s all for today. Thank you for listening to Rethinking Humanitarianism.