DAVOS, Switzerland — Davos — the hub of an elite annual gathering in the Swiss Alps — is back, more than two years after the coronavirus pandemic sidelined its business gurus, political leaders and activists from high flight. There is no shortage of pressing issues to be resolved for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.
With their noble ambition to help improve the state of the world, forum organizers have their work cut out for them: soaring food and fuel prices, Russia’s war in Ukraine, climate change, drought and food shortages in In Africa, gaping inequality between rich and poor and autocratic regimes are gaining ground in some places – in addition to signs that the pandemic is far from over.
It is difficult to predict whether the ambitious discussions will result in substantial announcements that will advance the world’s most pressing challenges.
The war in Ukraine will be a key theme. President Volodymyr Zelensky will speak on Monday’s opening day via video from Kyiv, while the country’s foreign minister and a large delegation of other senior Ukrainian officials will be on hand. They will be joined this week by leaders such as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, US climate envoy John Kerry, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“There is no business as usual,” forum chairman Borge Brende told The Associated Press, saying Ukraine is not the only concern. “It’s also climate change. It is also that global growth is slowing down, and we must prevent this very weak recovery from ending in a new recession because we have very little ammunition to fight a new recession.
“A new recession will lead to an increase in unemployment, an increase in poverty,” he added. “So much is at stake.”
President Vladimir Putin’s war means Russian businessmen and political leaders have not been invited to Davos this year. There will be no traditional “Russia House” social festivities with caviar and vodka spreads for the elite participants of its fun night.
Instead, critics – including Ukrainian tycoon Victor Pinchuk and the country’s foreign ministry – have seized upon certain symbolism and vowed to express their disgust, shared by many around the world.
“This year, Russia is not present in Davos, but its crimes will not go unnoticed. The ‘House of War Crimes in Russia’ takes place inside the former Russia House,” organizers of the renamed venue said in a press release.
Opening on Monday, the venue will feature photos of the crimes and cruelties that Russian forces are accused of perpetuating. Some victims will speak out, including Anatoliy Fedoruk, the mayor of Bucha, a town near kyiv where images of civilian killings have sparked outrage around the world.
“It’s important to understand what’s really going on in Ukraine,” said Bjorn Geldhof, artistic director of the PinchukArtCentre, which is helping to organize the exhibition. “Part of this exposure is also about putting a human face back on those people who were victims of these Russian war crimes.”
Brende, the forum’s chairman, said dozens of CEOs and other business leaders will be looking at ways the private sector can support Ukraine, “in the situation where Russia is breaking international law, international humanitarian law and does not respect the Charter of the United Nations”.
Not everyone believes that Davos is the place to find solutions.
A few dozen anti-capitalist protesters marching behind a “Smash WEF” banner clashed with police in Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, on Friday, a sign of latent antagonism against economic elites they accuse of putting profits before the people. Police used rubber bullets and pepper spray to disperse the crowd in what was believed to be an unauthorized gathering.
While Ukraine will capture the spotlight on the first day of the meeting, climate and environmental issues will be a recurring and constant theme as the forum looks to both future and current challenges.
A third of the roughly 270 roundtables until Thursday’s final will focus on climate change or its effects, with extreme weather, efforts to achieve “net zero” emissions and the search for new sources of energy more specific to the agenda.
Forum officials – who have come under fire for hosting wealthy executives who sometimes fly on business jets spewing shows – have increasingly tried to play their part and inoculate themselves against accusations of hypocrisy : Over the past five years, they say they have offset 100% of the carbon emissions of the organization’s activities by supporting environmental projects.
Experts say offsets can be problematic because there is no guarantee they will reduce emissions.