The World Economic Forum has certainly taken measures to improve multi-stakeholder engagement in recent years. It appears that some political and business leaders are finally realising that it may be time for new ways of doing things and perhaps even hearing what alternative voices have to say. Members of civil society who have been granted access to engage with the world’s top politicians and business leaders are wondering whether this year’s theme of “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models” will address the multiple political, social, economic and environmental crises facing the world.
Given the tumultuous events of last year from the people’s revolutions in the Middle East to the economic meltdown in Europe (which is fast spreading to other parts of the world), what civil society is seeking from leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos is a resolve to prioritise democratic freedoms, social protection, and transparency in business and political leadership. Klaus Schwab, the founder and executive chair of perhaps the world’s most high profile annual gathering recently told the media that established systems of governance and business are in urgent need of a radical overhaul.1 He noted that “capitalism, in its current form, no longer fits the world around us…a global transformation is urgently needed and it must start with reinstating a global sense of social responsibility.”2
In defining what the future should look like, Davos organisers should start by recognising that the “old boys” way of solving problems, by consulting an elite few behind closed doors in the Swiss Alps, is a modality that needs a great transformation. While there is representation of large international NGOs at Davos, we need to interrogate whether sufficient invitation was extended to representatives of the 2011 Indignados and Occupy Wall Street movements formed in response to the economic crisis, solutions to which delegates in Davos are discussing.
As talks at the World Economic Forum continue, it is imperative that five key issues are urgently addressed:
1. Implement the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights
Big business has largely remained silent about their role in the economic crisis, further exacerbating the current legitimacy deficit felt by the people. Occupy Wall Street’s foremost demand is to change the ‘business as usual’ operations that have undermined social justice and aggravated income inequality. Business leaders must start to rebuild legitimacy by adopting and implementing polices and processes to prevent, mitigate and remedy human rights violations and ensure that human rights are at the centre of economic growth initiatives. Last year, the UN adopted a set of principles on business and human rights developed after extensive consultations amongst diverse stakeholders by an eminent Harvard professor.
2. Prioritise Democratic Freedoms
The uprisings of 2011 have demonstrated that ordinary people are tired of being locked out of decision making. Citizen led movements are utilizing their democratic freedoms, even in the face of violence, to demand the space and opportunity to influence policy. The street protests during the Arab Spring brought down dictators and the Occupy Wall Street movement spread throughout corners of the globe, but these movements were not just about overthrowing oppressive rulers; they were about changing the system at large. Business leaders need to prioritise democratic freedoms along with economic growth. The recent political upheavals have contributed to economic turmoil largely because business and industry are overlooking democratic reform, and more countries are expected to implode if business as usual continues.
3. Commit to a Binding Treaty on Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Leaders at Davos need to recognise that a global agreement on reducing greenhouse gases that has legal weight is the need of the hour. The pathetically selfish ‘every man for himself’ behaviour demonstrated by official representatives atCOP17 in Durban demonstrated that despite the interconnected nature of the world we live in, our leaders are not willing to agree on solutions to safeguard our common planet. Already, floods and famines induced by rapid climate change are causing political and economic turmoil. If business and industry continue to produce and consume at the current rate the planet will be subjected to disaster at a level we have not experienced before and climate crises will not be confined to isolated pockets.
4. Commit to reform of Global Governance Institutions
Given the changing dynamics and needs of the 21st century, it is critical that concrete progress is made with regard to discussions on reform of international financial institutions whose governance needs to be made more inclusive and democratic. It is untenable in today’s world that control of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund lies with a handful of traditionally rich countries.
5. Implement a Global Financial Transaction Tax
Lastly, leaders in Davos need to raise funds to secure a social protection floor for those at the bottom of the economic ladder through the Financial Transaction Tax. The minute tax would serve as a levy on bank financial transactions, including trading in shares, bonds and derivatives and is designed to stop currency speculation. Binding commitments for innovative tax measures need to be adopted by every country and supported by business. Tax equality should serve as a pillar of economic reform and business must not only be held accountable to pay their fair share but commit to use tax revenue in a way that supports the most vulnerable.
Civil society groups across the world have established platforms, made their demands clear and are looking for holistic social responsibility that reforms the policies, institutions and systems that perpetuate cycles of poverty and inequality. Will the leaders at Davos listen and agree? Events of 2011 have proved that people are up to the challenge of seeing through great transformations, now let’s see if the world’s leaders are willing to follow suit.
Policy and Advocacy Unit
1. WEF seeks to rewire global leadership by Matthew Allen