As the 47th World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos comes to a close, the world is asking if, in this age of renewed populism, Davos is still relevant.
There’s no question that the world has changed tremendously in the last year. The biggest buzzword of the 2016 Annual Meeting was "Brexit," but I’d bet that nearly everyone who discussed it didn’t believe the "Leave" camp would actually represent the majority vote in the referendum. This year, words like "populism," "nationalism," "inclusion," and "protectionism" are part of conversations all over the Congress Center.
With the emergence of populist leaders like President-elect Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen, and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage suggesting moves toward protectionist policies, the mood in Davos is apprehensive, as business leaders and heads of state consider the impact of a less-globalized market. Chinese President Xi Jinping was one of the many leaders to champion free trade and open markets, stating, "No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war."
Davos has long been criticized as a meeting of the world’s elites, who overlook the real issues affecting the masses in favor of making billion-dollar deals over champagne and canapés. If the perception was true, the "Davos man" (and woman) would be even more out of touch this year amid the growing populist movement. But it’s important to remember that many of the things that are accomplished in Davos do benefit society at large.
In 1988, Greece and Turkey signed the "Davos Declaration," reconciling differences and turning back from the brink of war. In 1989, leaders of East and West Germany met in Davos to discuss German reunification. In 2006, Bono launched his Product (RED) initiative, which has since raised $350 million toward eradicating HIV/AIDS. And just yesterday, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations launched in Davos to finance research and development of vaccines that will shorten response time to epidemics like Ebola. CEPI is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, and the governments of Norway, Germany, and Japan, and the idea for the coalition began last year when the launch partners met in Davos.
The World Economic Forum is more than just a big dinner party for the world’s wealthy and powerful. The Annual Meeting presents a unique opportunity for business and world leaders to meet with NGOs, establish partnerships that provide backing for important purpose-driven initiatives, and come to a consensus on how to address important societal issues.
But as more of the world embraces a populist mentality, those who come to Davos each year need to realize the world is changing quickly, and so will the way we do business. Eurasia Group president of Ian Bremmer tweeted, "Elites won’t be able to manage populism until they stop seeing it as a threat and start seeing it as a symptom."
Rejecting the populist movement will not solve any problems, so the world’s leaders will need to find inclusive ways to build relationships and address world issues without further isolating their constituents and stakeholders.
Barri Rafferty is partner and president at Ketchum, a leading global communications firm. Follow her live posts from Davos at @barrirafferty.