We can start by asking what we might reasonably expect from such a gathering. The vision of some 3,000 people, representing a tiny demographic of the most rich and powerful, jetting to a luxury resort (where else?) for talks and “networking” – has raised criticisms of it being an elite talking shop for “Davos Man” and “Davos Woman”. One commentator has said: “WEF attendees have had many years now of hand-wringing about the growing gap between rich and poor, and very little to show for it”. Another called it an, “orgy of plutocratic comity”, but also suggested that it was a useful forum for exchanging creative ideas.
The organisation’s saving grace is, perhaps, its championship of the right issues – the big, global ones that need a global consensus before we can even start addressing them more seriously and urgently. In particular, the WEF’s annual Global Risks Report is a very useful bit of strategic horizon scanning – and one of the few publications that do that well. For that reason, we’ve already suggested that it should be read by all resilience professionals who need strategic insight on emerging risks.
This year, climate change is the most prominent WEF theme. And for some time now it has been reporting on societal issues. These include social polarisation, declining human rights and freedoms, inequalities in access to the benefits of globalisation, the fracturing of the “social contract” and consensus in all societies and related political themes like narrow populist “nativism” – national self-interest predominating crudely over shared and international interests, even when the latter are self-evident.
These are legitimate concerns for disaster managers. If we are to talk about social and community resilience, we must think about how and why people and communities react to risks, disasters and stresses in the ways they do. In other words, what forces are at work in society now and what effect are they having. That makes an understanding of these macro societal trends important – they are part of the social framework we operate with and within.
Also, resilience capability building is inherently political. It’s about the art of the possible; it comes down to what resources (especially money) are made available. And budgets are, of course, the most politicised dimension of organisational and political life. Davos has given us stark proof (even if we didn’t really need it) that climate change is still a political issue and the cause isn’t yet won. This is what strategic horizon scanning is like; it isn’t about finding fully developed risks. It’s about identifying and understanding trends and issues that might create risks at some point in the future.
Another abiding theme is the almost exponential growth of the gap between the wealthy elites and the mass of the population. This was on the agenda for Davos this year - again. If you don’t think that’s a real issue consider a recent report from Oxfam, saying that the 2,153 richest people in the world control more money that the poorest 4.6 billion. That’s an unlikely recipe for political, economic or social stability.
This brings us to the phenomenon of “elite statelessness”. The argument goes like this: modern elites (like those 2,153 lucky people) have effectively withdrawn from their host societies. They are “denationalised” and are now transnational in thought, behaviour and in their sense of identity. Big thinkers like Samuel Huntington and Christopher Lasch have explored this theme in detail and very convincingly.
The result is that the elites tend to be disassociated from the normal life of society and are increasingly ignorant about what “normal life” means for the vast mass of the population. And the WEF founder, reflecting on the growth of confrontational politics and activism, recently said that “people are revolting against the elites they believe have betrayed them”.
Why is this important? It’s about the effects of globalisation and the distribution of those effects. In other words, who benefits, who loses and to what extent?
Everybody and all organisations/ governments (local and national) are living with the effects of globalisation every day. It isn’t something that is happening “out there” somewhere. And it isn’t living a life of its own – it’s a model and a system that has been created and shaped for certain purposes.
Before the 2018 WEF Forum (and yes, it was in Davos) Oxfam declared that, “the model of globalisation pursued for the last 40 years had clearly one set of major winners, the very richest in society”. Whereas in 2017 half of the world’s population received a zero share of the wealth that was created globally in that year. Oxfam said that if this vision and model of globalisation is allowed to persist it will create increasingly serious levels of political, social and economic instability. There you have it – an argument that explains why globalisation as it works today is not a good recipe for our collective long-term benefit.
We discussed the impact of climate change in our last “post from Davos”, and the ways in which it will make “natural” disasters more damaging, more frequent and more costly. Add to that a socio-political background of tension, confrontation and deteriorating inter-state relations – and you have a potent cocktail of issues.
If the WEF get-together and its Global Risks Report achieve anything of real significance and value, it will be in the field of climate change. And that will probably amount to, if we are lucky, a slight stiffening of the resolve to confront it and a little more willingness on the part of some governments and large organisations to put the collective good first. The performance of at least one speaker also reminds us that denialism is still there, still powerful in certain quarters and will continue to have to be dealt with.