Every year for almost 50 years now, a World Economic Forum (WEF) is held in Davos, Switzerland, bringing in billionaires and heads of state from all over the world.
The first WEF was in 1971 with 450 participants. The forum caught the attention of more people from the private sector as well as government. Last year’s WEF had 2,500 participants. The world tunes in on this world forum, noting the agenda, participants and resource persons. This year, the world’s youngest prime minister, 34-year-old Sanna Marin from Finland, will be there. So, too, will Ren Zhengfei, the CEO of China’s Huawei, who makes Trump and others lose sleep with their breakneck speed of innovations.
Last year, the Forum invited young environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who told the WEF participants that “our house is on fire” and that she would hold the delegates accountable for not doing more to handle climate change.
Thunberg’s been invited again for 2020 to be part of a climate apocalypse panel, which is sandwiched between a keynote address by US President Donald Trump and a special address by China’s Vice Premier Han Zheng.
Thunberg’s appearance in Davos comes only a few months after the feisty 17-year-old addressed (actually, hectored) the United Nations in New York.
Meanwhile, the business media outfit Bloomberg reports that about a hundred of the world’s billionaires will be flying in, many in personal planes with—and I wasn’t sure if Bloomberg was being tongue-in-cheek—“fuel designed to lower carbon emissions.” There’s something “astig” about Davos, astig being a Filipino slang word for impressive, with a punch. The term is “tigas” (hard) spelled backwards.
The first day’s panels give us an idea of the astig agenda of WEF. Astig panels, too, but I find irony in the slated speakers. Besides the climate apocalypse panel, there will be one on green growth (panelists from the Bank of England and the oil company Aramco) and another on stakeholder capitalism (panelists from the Bank of America, IBM and Siemens).
High up on the agenda of this year’s WEF will be burnout and depression, which have become serious issues worldwide, exemplified by Japan’s “karoshi,” literally death from overwork.
There lies another irony about WEF. Davos used to have a tuberculosis sanitarium, a sanitarium being a hospital for long-term care of patients with infectious diseases. That was in the pre-antibiotics era. The TB sanitaria are long gone, but Davos and Switzerland are now known for their retreats for the rich, powerful, famous and sometimes notorious, offering promises not just of relief from overwork but also spa packages promising beauty and long life.
I couldn’t help but think of figures on the number of work hours from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The top five are not the richest: Mexico, Costa Rica, South Korea, Greece and Russia. Certainly, within countries, the most overworked are the poor; throw in added hours wasted on the road getting to and from work.
Stakeholder capitalism pretty much captures what’s been going on in Davos. Economic inequality, wars (foremost this year, the US-China trade war), crises always come with wistful predictions from Left groups that capitalism is about to collapse. Davos epitomizes the way contemporary capitalism handles the challenges, often by co-opting the radicals and the naysayers by allowing them to speak.
A more charitable view is to think that the world’s rich and powerful will actually listen to and learn from the radicals. I do wish our economic and political leaders in the Philippines would adopt more of that spirit of WEF and “stakeholder capitalism” with its philosophy that we’re in this together, so let’s all see what we can do (even if the capitalists do end up giving too little).
We have local versions of the WEF like the Makati Business Club, which used to be quite outspoken and critical about authoritarianism, knowing as many WEF billionaires do that dictators are not healthy for the economy. There’s also the Management Association of the Philippines, which is even more docile and ends up missing out on important social developments that will shape our future.
If 2020 is used as a metaphor for the need for clear vision, we should think of Davos astig in terms of a liability—that of astigmatism, a condition where vision is blurred because the eye can’t focus and objects are not put in the proper light. That could happen, too, in Davos, and in our many 6-star hotel meetings and conferences about economic, political and environmental woes.
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