Every January, the Global elite descend on a picturesque Swiss town and settle into the tidy business of looking after global economic progress. They form committees and make important decisions about jobs, technology, disease prevention, immigration, and cyber-security. They are there to look after our interests. Right? That's one narrative.
The other, less considered, and somewhat ignored scenerio is that as global wealth is more and more concentrated at the very top, these gatherings constitute the beginnings of a future state of global governance. Don't worry, down-to-earth, everyday people like the Pope, Bono and Leonardo DiCaprio will be there to speak on our behalf.
Here's a run-down of the big-ticket topics @Davos this year.
Ze Robotz: Zey have arrived.
The rise of automation and ever more intelligent machines has WEF attendees rightly concerned. Referred to as a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres”, the consensus of the critics is that artificial intelligence is going to do all of us in. Robots, AI, and self-driving cars will soon overwhelm us all and turn us into copper-top batteries. The going consensus is that ‘Homo sapiens will be split into a handful of gods and the rest of us" as if that is not already happening given the inequity of wealth in the world. The debate is not so much about how whether or not the "4th Industrial Revolution" will improve industry and society and “failing the middle classes”, but whether we are heading towards “the world without work” -where 50% of all jobs will be taken by intelligent automation (ze robotz).
7m jobs are at risk with women losing out more than men as they are less likely to be working in areas where the adoption of new technology will create jobs. Save the Children warns that the "4th Industrial Revolution" risks deepening the gap between rich and poor, as automation will wipe out employment opportunities for those with the least educational qualifications, and hollow out labor markets in the developing world.
Free advice: You might want to rethink investing in that global currency ETF.
Immigration & Terrorism: Don't let em' in!
While attendees trudge through the icy snow, Queen Rania of Jordan will speak on the Terrorism and the migration crisis problems in the Middle East that have caused desperate millions continue to risk the winter cold and storms by crossing the Mediterranean. Leaders will debate how to address the growing migration crisis and better integrate refugees into the communities who shelter them. The EU foreign affairs chief, Federica Mogherini, and the French minister Emmanuel Macron are to consider whether Europe has been pushed to a tipping point by the crisis. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, is giving a keynote speech. Last year, he delivered an electrifying talk on the need to tackle violent extremism and the “monsters” of Islamic State. You can see how effective that conversation was in deterring violence this year. (cough)
We feel your pain, we really do, just virtually.
Delegates can choose to be jolted out of their comfortable existence by spending an hour experiencing a day in the life of a refugee by having to remove their shoes and drink tepid coffee from styrofoam cups. This has become a regular event at Davos, with some people being moved to tears by a taste of bad espresso. Some actually former refugees are also on hand to share their stories, and transmittable diseases caused by the fundamental neglect of civilization and this persistent nastiness called global resource warfare. Kudos to Angela Merkel, who, with criticism over her refugee policies rising by the day, will skip this year’s event.
China's slow-down = no new Ferraris?
Our betters will also lament that they may have to sell a house, jet, or forestall that fourth divorce because of market turmoil. The stock market dip that kicked off 2016 may make an appreciable dent in Chanel sales, enough to cause nervous chatter about whether they have managed to direct us headlong are heading into a new crash. Perhaps you remember the last one when you had to sell the leased Porsche and four properties you overleveraged your life on?
Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF will try and slalom her way around Euclid Tsakalotos, the new Greek finance minister on the hard path of post-bailout reform and Greece's Alexis Tsipras will remind us why the turmoil in the Middle East and in the markets has pushed the Eurozone debt problems down the agenda. Greece will remain irrelevant as long as he and Bernie Sanders dare utter the dirty word that no one wants to hear "Socialism"!
Don't look at me, it's Yuan's fault.
Of course, it's not corporate malfeasance or greed that is tempting the economic fates, it's China. China is fueling global economic uncertainty, with a chaotic start to the year in their financial markets. In early January, sharp dips in Chinese stocks tripped circuit breakers, halting trading. The Shanghai market is down double-digits year and Chinese officials announced their economy had grown 6.9% in 2015, the slowest growth rate in 25 years. The IMF predicts that this rate will slow to 6.3% in 2016 and 6.0% in 2017.
The Chinese government’s top market regulators, Fang Xinghai, will update the global elite With its slowing economy and swelling credit levels alongside the IMF chief, Christine Lagarde, (whom I have the oddest of crushes on). She will be joined by the energy ministers of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait will talk publicly about how Arab economies can reform to handle cheap oil, and why the price of oil is now less than the cost of the barrel it comes in. Also of note, no fewer than ten central bank governors will be at Davos to help the global economy this year by exchanging funny handshakes and saying things like, Abstulit ire Debemus!
The Climate: But Mom, it's not even two degrees!
Even though anyone with a working brain cell has known that the climate is a big f-cking issue since about 1973, this will be the first time that environmental problems topped the list of worries. The WEF hopes to build on the Paris climate deal, agreed in December, by examining how governments and businesses can work together to cut carbon emissions. The goal of 1.5C is a big leap below the 2C decided six years ago in Copenhagen. Contrary to how the elite spins it, the WEF's prior ignorance in failing to deal with and prepare for climate change is the biggest single threat facing the world economy. Surprise! That only took most of my life for the smartest people on the planet to figure out. Mr. DiCaprio will also be pushing for action by shortening his beard and raising money for his foundation that helps protect threatened ecosystems and funds projects to shield wildlife from the impact of climate change.
Medicine: Paging Dr. Biden.
I like Joe Biden because he is virtually the easiest person on the planet to underestimate.
The US vice-president will be in attendance to push his “moonshot” initiative to find a cure for cancer. Dengue fever outbreak in Hawaii will be on the agenda too. Surely Trump will blame this on the Obama's Christmas visit. Biden, leading a large US delegation, will meet with top scientists, doctors, and data researchers in an attempt to speed up the fight against the disease which claimed his son Beau in May 2015. Last week, Biden said “cancer politics” were holding back progress and called for more data sharing about patient information and treatment outcomes. Why do Politicians always blame Politics? It's like doctor's blaming healthcare for a disease.
Speaking of which, Ebola will also be on the agenda. Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance is expected to announce an agreement with pharmaceuticals company Merck to help prepare for the next outbreak. Of course, Merck has nothing to gain from a global epidemic. Last summer, tests showed that Merck’s experimental Ebola vaccine was 100% effective in providing immunity to a disease that killed more than 11,000 people last year.
Global Governance: Who's Afraid of Davos?
The real issue about the WEF is not the monumental hypocrisy of its delegates. It is rather that this unaccountable invitation-only gathering is the continuation (and obviation) of an alarming trend where global decisions are being made. The WEF, Davos and elite gathering like it are the default form of global governance. Since 2009, the WEF has been working on an ambitious project called the Global Redesign Initiative, (GRI), which effectively proposes a transition away from intergovernmental decision-making towards a system of multi-stakeholder governance. *
The "old model", (called representative democracy) where we vote in governments who then negotiate treaties which are then ratified by our elected representatives is being slowly replaced by a new model multi-stakeholder governance where a self-selected group of ‘stakeholders’makes decisions on our behalf. The founder of WEF Klaus Schwab says “the sovereign state has become obsolete.” WEF has created no less than forty Global Agenda Councils and industry-sector bodies, with the belief these are the best groups of people to develop proposals and ultimately decisions related to a whole gamut of global issues from climate change to cyber security.*
Corporations are of course at the heart of this model, because they are more adept at “agile” governance, drawing on the private sector’s experience of “adapting to a new, fast-changing environment”. Governments are encouraged to tackle every issue by allying with the private sector in public-private partnerships. Carefully selected civil society representatives are invited in to legitimize the process.
Questions about how issues are framed, who is chosen, from what sectors, for whose benefit, and accountable to whom are not open to the public.
A cursory examination of the WEF’s board is illustrative of the sort of elite groups that emerge as a result. WEF says that on its website that it is “accountable to all parts of society” carefully “blend[ing] and balanc[ing] the best of many kinds of organizations, from both the public and private sectors, international organizations and academic institutions.”
Let's have a look at this "blending and balancing".
- 6 of its 24 “exemplary” Board members are women (25%),
- 16 are from North America and Europe (67%),
- 22 of the 24 went to universities in US and Europe
- 10, in fact, went to the same university, Harvard)
- There is not one African Board member.
Is this really what modern, globalized accountability and representation look like?
Nearly half of the Board (12) are currently corporate executives, if you look at their career history, this rises to two-thirds. Only one member can be said to represent civil society (Peter Maurer of Red Cross).
There are no representatives of trade unions, public sector organizations, human rights groups, peasant or indigenous organizations, students and youth.
This is a default option for global governance, where nothing in international law exists to prohibit their organization or influence. As Harris Gleckman points out,
“What is ingenious and disturbing is that the WEF multi-stakeholder governance proposal does not require approval or disapproval by any intergovernmental body. Absent any intergovernmental action the natural transition to multi-stakeholder governance as a partial replacement of multilateralism can just happen.”
The recent agreement at Paris COP21 though celebrated worldwide lacks any reference to binding agreements, such as the Kyoto Protocol agreed in 1997, or any attempt to tie actions to scientific advice let alone historic responsibility. Instead, we got "Intended Nationally Determined Contributions", a call for greater private sector involvement, and a commitment to try and do better in five years time.
The critical issue of food security is a perfect example of what this shift towards corporate-led multistakeholder means in practice. When food prices surged dramatically in 2007 to 2008, causing food riots and social unrest, the response was galvanized by groups like these. The groups’ proposals pointedly ignore issues of distribution and waste or the need for equal access and control of land and food and systematically sought to close down multilateral spaces, such as the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (SCN), that actually examine these issues.
I'm not a fan of fear-mongering or conspiracy, nor do I need to be. We know now that wealth is in fact concentrated in the upper echelons of society and that these same individuals control our economic lives. Aside from completely going off-grid and into the wild, (which is not an entirely bad idea) it's necessary that we are informed, we debate and we challenge this level of control. Otherwise, robots will be least of our worries.
*The World Water Forum, the Marine Stewardship Council and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) are just three of thousands of multi-stakeholder groups What WEF is trying to do is to turn these models into a multi-stakeholder governance system.
* The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), the African Green Revolution Association (AGRA), and the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Task Force on the Global Food Security Crisis (HLTF) and its parallel G8 public-private partnership (PPP) initiative, the Global Partnership for Agriculture and Food Security and the Scale Up Nutrition (SUN) initiative. They also included the WEF’s own Global Food, Agriculture and Nutrition Redesign Initiative (GFANRI).