Davos Reflections: Are Leaders Acting on Commitments to a More Equitable and Inclusive World?

By Julia Luscombe

January 22, 2019 was a surreal day — I started it by speaking at the opening press conference of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, and ended it mingling with heads of state and business leaders at a dinner hosted by Professor Klaus Schwab. It was Davos. I was here. I had a seat at the table.

I was there because I was one of six Co-Chairs of this year’s meeting selected from the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community of young leaders under the age of 33. Young people have an important voice at Davos — the choices made today will shape the future we inherit. This was particularly resonant in this year’s theme: Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. As Co-Chairs, we used our platform to implore the 2,000+ world leaders gathered at the alpine retreat to build a more equitable and sustainable global architecture, and engage younger generations in the process.

Opening panel of the 2019 World Economic Forum Annual Meeting with Professor Klaus Schwab and the seven meeting Co-Chairs: Basima Abdulrahman, Juan David Aristizabal, Noura Berrouba, Julia Luscombe, Akira Sakano, Mohammed Hassan Mohamud, and Satya Nadella (left to right)

In my role, I was also able to share the stories of the 40M people in the United States facing hunger and my work at Feeding America. The reality of hunger in the US was a surprise to many of the people I met at Davos from other countries. The fact that 12M children in the richest country in the world struggle to get the food they need highlighted that global growth has left many behind.

Indeed, discussion about growing inequities and those being left behind permeated Davos. A common refrain was that people not experiencing the benefits of global growth has driven the distrust of institutions and populist movements we are seeing around the world. It is of course ironic to have these discussions at Davos — a “global gathering for elites” — but it is perhaps the only forum where global business and government leaders can be compelled to have the conversation in person. The World Economic Forum has also made strides to make the Annual Meeting more inclusive, bringing additional, impacted voices to the room (young people as Co-Chairs is a case in point).

As I navigated Davos for the first time, I saw bright spots that made me hopeful we are shaping a path for a more equitable and inclusive world, and I also encountered some disappointment. Here are my takeaways:

A Bright Spot: Innovation in How We Measure Economic Performance

A foundational debate across Davos was what is most important in driving greater equity: economic growth (driven by business), or more equitable social structures (driven by government). Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, in an opening panel, spoke to how the business community should continue to “Aggressively drive economic growth […], but will need to do it in an equitable way”, including adequately meeting the needs of employees and communities, like Microsoft’s recent $500M pledge to support affordable housing in Seattle.

Others — including notably panelists speaking on the Cost of Inequality — explained that while businesses have a role to play, government and tax policy should ensure a level playing field, and that equitable access to opportunities is a key driver of entrepreneurship and growth.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, throughout the week shared the powerful example of how New Zealand is moving beyond GDP and job creation as measures of success, to focus on long-term well-being as an outcome for New Zealanders. For department budgets to be approved, Ministers must show how their activities will contribute to intergenerational well-being and equity.

No matter where folks fell on the spectrum of role of business vs. government, hearing healthy debates and tangible examples of commitments to equitable outcomes — and seeing them celebrated at Davos — were bright spots.

A Bright Spot: The Refugee Voice Was Front and Center

In no discussion was the need to rethink global institutions and governance more powerful than when speaking about today’s unprecedented refugee crisis. Amid conversations about well-being and equity, we were reminded that there are 68M forcibly displaced people worldwide, and refugee camps in over 130 countries.

At “A Day in the Life of a Refugee” — a simulation at Davos — participants entered a hotel basement converted into a compelling refugee camp and were brusquely shuffled in and out of tents and through bureaucratic checkpoints. In the debrief, privileged attendees teared up as they heard testimonials from current and former refugees, and camp workers.

Mohammed Hassan (a fellow Global Shaper Co-Chair) has lived in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya for 20 years — nearly his entire life. He is a camp zonal chairman and advocate for the 185,000 other people living there. An eloquent speaker, he reminded us that, “Refugee camps are not equitable, not sustainable — they are not conducive for human growth.”

For me, Mohammed was what Davos should be about — someone with lived experience who can hold global leaders to account. Refugees will need to be part of developing solutions. Mohammed’s ability to share his story and ideas — and build in-person connections with leaders who can influence change — gave me hope. However, Mohammed went back to Kakuma, and we will need to see if leaders take any meaningful action post-Davos on the refugee crisis.

A Bright Spot: Young People

The voices of young people rocked Davos. In addition to the Co-Chairs, 49 other Global Shapers who are innovators and leaders in everything from domestic violence, to prison reform, to filmmaking were a visible presence throughout the week. Two Shapers from Venezuela — one of whom had to flee to the United States — were able to attend and speak to the crisis in their country. Throughout a busy week, our cohort learned from one another, supported each other, and asked tough questions.

We were emboldened by the supportive global leaders who had our back. Jack Ma advised a group of Shapers on how to drive change by saying, “There are no experts of tomorrow, only experts of yesterday.”

In addition to Shapers, 16-year old climate activist Greta Thunberg told world leaders, “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” I was inspired by the passion of all the young people I met at Davos, and can’t wait to see them grow in influence and impact.

I have no doubt the World Economic Forum will continue to include the voices of the next generation at Davos. As Professor Klaus Schwab said, “Young people today are the first generation to live with the choices of prior generations, and the last generation that can do anything about it.”

And the Disappointment… Accountability.

While I was inspired by the discussions and the people I met, and bright spots of real change, the biggest disappointment was the lack of progress since the last meeting.

Despite equity and inclusion being a continued topic of conversation at Davos, a report released by Oxfam International during the Annual Meeting reveal that 82% of the wealth generated last year went to the richest 1% of the global population.

Despite Greta’s words and climate change being further elevated with powerful presentations by David Attenborough, Jane Goodall, and Global Shaper Co-Chair Akira Sakano, a record number attendees flew to the meeting on private jets.

There are actions that have come out of the meeting, but many lack specificity, and there is nothing on the refugee crisis — I worry a year from now we will see no change for Mohammed and his community.

Many Davos attendees are not translating their privilege into personal and institutional accountability. Despite facilitating discussions on equity and making efforts towards inclusion, a one-week meeting can only go so far. We need mechanisms to support accountability and action following the meeting.

I hope next year’s Davos Co-Chairs will open by answering three questions: What was discussed and committed to last year? How have we done since then? What do we need to prioritize this year?

Julia Luscombe is Curator of the Chicago Global Shapers hub and Director of Strategic Initiatives at Feeding America. She also wrote an article for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting with a millennial perspective on Globalization 4.0

A globally recognized group of young leaders empowered by the World Economic Forum to improve the lives of Chicagoans. Also follow us on Twitter @ChicagoShapers

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