In Davos, leaders spoke grandly about restoring trust. Can the World Economic Forum make a difference?

(Markus Schreiber / Associated Press)

In Davos, leaders spoke grandly about restoring trust. Can the World Economic Forum make a difference?


January 19, 2024

Business and political elites descended on the Swiss Alpine snows of Davos to figure out restoring trust in a splintering world. If we can learn anything from the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, which boldly promoted this topic, it is that we still have a long way to go.

From outright wars in Ukraine and the Middle East to suspicions that business leaders and techies want to make money by replacing workers with artificial intelligence, there is clearly a trust deficit.

The meeting in Davos concluded on Friday after an annual pulse check among leading decision-makers. The idea is to bring people together, and big announcements are often just a byproduct and not the goal. If they come at all.

It is unrealistic to think that Davos or any meeting anywhere in the world can rebuild trust in one meeting when it is fragmented on so many dimensions,” said Rich Lesser, chairman of the Boston Consulting Group.

But thousands of conversations between the social, private and public sectors are helping to create “a starting point for rebuilding trust,” he said.

A large artistic wall headed Rebuilding Trust, which greeted bigwigs from Bill Gates to the Iranian Foreign Minister, was full of phrases like Growth and Jobs, Climate-Nature-Energy and Cooperation and Security, buzzwords that to some smack of idle talk.

Critics say the annual gathering, which began more than half a century ago, is the preserve of business leaders seeking greater wealth and politicians seeking to stay in power. The event is aimed at promoting optimism, but the geopolitical gloom weighs heavily.

What is striking, if not shocking, for me in Davos is this strange commitment on the part of the participants to adopt an optimistic mindset, said Agns Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International. But optimism with the goal of maintaining the status quo and maintaining my privilege. That’s not optimism.

Column: Davos, where the rich and powerful go to show off their ignorance

Frankly, that is madness and it affects our poor world, she added.

The overall conclusion, said those present, was that the global economic picture is somewhat rosier than one might think; Interest rates and inflation appear to have peaked in the richest markets, but it is still a mystery where intractable wars and looming elections will take place in places like the US. India, the European Union and South Africa will give the world a new direction.

Here are some insights from Davos and the work ahead:

Ukraine needs more money

Long before the Russian war, Ukraine had staked out prime real estate on the main drag of the Davos Promenade to further its development and efforts to turn west. For the past two years, authorities in Kiev have used the event to call for more support for their struggle.

In 2022, months after the Russian invasion, that was an easier question. This year, Ukraine was tired in Europe and the US made its entrance.

In Davos, Zelensky lashes out at Putin and urges support for Ukraine’s struggle

President Volodymyr Zelensky headlined Tuesday’s action, calling for more support from Western allies as billions in new funding from the United States and the European Union remain locked up by homegrown political bickering.

Please strengthen our economy, and we will strengthen your security, Zelensky urged.

Britain, for its part, has stepped up its recent $3.2 billion contribution to Ukraine and urged its allies to follow suit.

The future and the risk

Concerns about the economy that dominated last year have given way to hopes from at least business leaders that generative AI could increase productivity and reduce the number of red tasks.

But naysayers fear that the technology’s explosive growth is happening too fast for regulators, that threats to push people out of their jobs and could lead to greater disinformation than already found on social media.

Some say people should remain in control and not allow technology to make crucial decisions on its own.

No matter how much AI can do, humans are still the deciding factor. So we should focus on training human resources, especially the highly qualified workers, Pham Minh Chinh, Vietnam’s prime minister, said at a panel in Davos.

A climate of fear…

The fate of the Israeli hostages held by Hamas and fears for Israel’s long-term security were on people’s lips, as was what some of Israel’s critics call genocide in Gaza, a charge that Israeli leaders, whose people were massacred during the Holocaust.

Renewed talks about establishing a Palestinian state, an idea that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again rejected this week, led to discussions with US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and others, as well as hopes for a normalization of ties. Israel with the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia. Both seem unlikely in the near future.

Fears rage over how many more Palestinians will die or be injured, whether Israeli hostages will survive captivity and whether the conflict will spread to even more parts of the Middle East.

For example, Iran and its allies have stepped up military action in several parts of the region, prompting retaliatory attacks from Pakistan, the US and Britain, among others.

…and fear of the climate

An unusually rainy Thursday snow is much more the norm in Davos this time of year, setting tongues wagging about another possible, if temporary, sign of climate change that forward-looking CEOs and political leaders want to address.

The chatter in the Swiss ski resort, just a month after the latest UN climate conference, was unlikely to advance efforts to combat global warming. But business leaders shared ideas about how they’re trying to help.

The UN chief called 2023 the hottest year on record and fears it could be even hotter in coming years, saying countries are not doing enough.

In the face of the serious, even existential threats posed by runaway climate chaos and the runaway development of artificial intelligence without guardrails, we seem powerless to act together, Secretary General Antnio Guterres said in Davos. ‘As the climate begins to break down, countries remain determined to increase their emissions.

But the phasing out of fossil fuels is essential and inevitable,” he added. No amount of spin or fear tactics will change that.

AP journalists Masha Macpherson and David Keyton in Davos and Courtney Bonnell and Kelvin Chan in London contributed to this report.


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