The year 2020 marks two important anniversaries. It has been 75 years since the establishment of the United Nations (UN) by the victorious powers of World War II. And it has been 50 years since the establishment of the World Economic Forum (WEF) by Professor Klaus Schwab.
One might say that these are two very different anniversaries referring to two very different entities. The UN is a public organisation bringing together the governments of all the countries of our planet, which decide jointly on its activities for development, security and human rights, and share its costs (but don’t always pay their dues in full or on time). Its anniversary marks 75 years of peace, or rather without another world war for humanity.
The WEF is a not-for-profit foundation bringing together the world’s top businesses, who are funding it with generous membership fees. In fulfilment of its role as “the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation,” the WEF also invites key political leaders who usually respond positively to the opportunity of going to the Swiss mountain resort of Davos and mingling with the super-rich. Representatives of civil society organisations, academics and celebrities complete the mix.
Notwithstanding the differences, one would be excused to compare the WEF’s Annual Meeting in late January in Davos with the annual high-level meeting of the UN General Assembly in late September in New York. Both are preceded by overview reports presented by their respective CEOs. The rather boringly sounding 2019 Report of the Secretary-General on the Work of the Organisation is signed by Antonio Guterres, and a quote from his Introduction reads: “Global challenges require global solutions. It is not enough to proclaim the virtue of multilateralism; we must prove its added value.” Almost in response, the WEF Global Risks Report 2020 warns in the Preface by WEF president, Børge Brende that: “Unless stakeholders adapt multilateral mechanisms for this turbulent period, the risks that were once on the horizon will continue to arrive.”
It would be interesting to conduct a survey of numbers and the kinds of people who noticed the publication of the two reports - perhaps even read one or both of them - and followed the proceedings of the two events. It would not be surprising to discover that the WEF event was more attractive, with its brief speeches by leaders from various walks of life, interactive discussions, forward-looking themes.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution that was central in Davos - featuring artificial intelligence, big data and the use of cyberspace with their repercussions for countries, businesses and individuals - certainly felt more relevant, especially to the youth, than stiff diplomatic speeches by heads of state or government, or foreign ministers addressing their theoretical equals (sovereign equality of states) in the UN context.
Of course, the two fora serve different audiences and purposes. The UN gathering is meant as the annual meeting of our global village, with leaders stating their governments’ positions to please their domestic audiences and for their peers from other countries to take note. The government leaders also meet bilaterally or in small groups on the side-lines of the official meetings, discussing possibilities of cooperation and occasionally strike peace deals.
The Davos gathering started as a meeting of the world’s top corporate leaders 50 years ago. Soon thereafter political and civil society leaders started to be invited, with a focus on better understanding emerging issues and fostering partnerships to deal with them. In addition to the public meetings, Davos also hosts bilateral and small group talks where deals are struck.
In terms of concrete results, if we would like to determine which one of the two annual meetings is more productive for the world, we could find some rather disturbing similarities. For a quick assessment, we could compare the outcomes of the Davos meeting as presented on 24 January 2020 and the outcomes of the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Action Summit on 23 September 2019. Climate action was a central theme in Davos, too. In both cases, the outcomes are lists of announcements made by private and/or public stakeholders about initiatives and partnerships launched in the broad direction of required action. In both cases the lists read like collections of apples and pears – different partners, different budgets, different targets – which are very difficult to aggregate, to assess the expected actual result on people and planet, and to monitor implementation in practice.
In spite of this, in recent years the WEF model of multi-stakeholder governance led by the private sector has been winning the battle of impressions, projecting a more efficient, action-oriented and no-nonsense leadership. The signing by UN Secretary-General Guterres in June 2019 of a UN-WEF Strategic Partnership Framework with the WEF founder and Executive Chairman Professor Swab, as representatives of equal institutions, did nothing to change this impression, quite the opposite. The same with the fact that a Global Consortium for Digital Currency Governance, “the first global consortium focused on designing a framework for the governance of digital currencies, including stablecoins”, was announced this year in Davos rather at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or other such intergovernmental institutions.
While the mobilisation of all stakeholders is a sine qua non for solving the world’s key challenges, one would expect those stakeholders to be playing their respective roles at the best of their abilities. The apparent poverty in political leadership and public sector management, the capturing of hearts and minds by the successes of mega corporations and the messianic expectations from its leaders, the inability to articulate a clear framework of enforceable norms, rules and regulations within which the private sector should operate all explains well why the vision of a climate-neutral, fair and sustainable world is not coming any closer year after year.
- Georgios Kostakos is Executive Director of the Brussels-based Foundation for Global Governance and Sustainability (FOGGS). He has been extensively involved in global governance, sustainability and climate-related activities with the United Nations and beyond. One of projects that FOGGS supports is the UN2100 Initiative for UN reform.
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