Davos at 50: We have reached a tipping point for people, planet and a shared economic future

Davos 2020

The World Economic Forum celebrates 50 years of an economic history that could have been full of promise for a peaceful, more prosperous and more equal world. Sadly, the very drivers of wealth have contributed to a corrosive quest for profit with the extraordinary consequences of exclusion, inequality and environmental devastation.

The best of the promises of the 1970s where anything seemed achievable has been tarnished by an addiction to profit at any cost, geopolitical power and a failure to secure a tolerant and inclusive world where difference could be celebrated, and prosperity shared.

The quest for peace seemed possible after two major world wars, yet the vested interest of the weapons trade, even where moderated by international treaties, has refused to transition to a shared innovation for peace. The result has been a major conflict in every decade, and today we have military spending greater than any time since WWII.

Development based on industrial innovation across all sectors relied on the supply of fossil fuels, generating massive wealth, it sustained community development and became a backbone of developed economies. The energy demand today is greater than at any time in our history, and while the transition from fossil fuels is imperative, vested corporate interests in today’s energy economy are the greatest impediment to climate action.

As part of that innovation, nuclear technology brought energy, medical advancements and, tragically, weapons of mass destruction. However, apart from the risk of annihilation, which the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki this year reminds us, the consequence of nuclear plant accidents and the legacy for generations to come of the storage of toxic waste raise many questions as to in whose interest this technology really lies.

Financial growth has been rapid, and the growth of GDP has made the world wealthier than at any time in history. Again, vested interests have brought us the massive inequality of today, and the greed of the one per cent is fuelling an age of anger with governments and against corporate globalisation. At the same time, speculative investment brought us the great recession of 2008–2009, and yet the financial regulation of the too-big-to-fail banks and the toxic financial products that caused the crisis have left an intergenerational debt and a stagnant global economy. Governments today have little or no fiscal space to respond to emerging areas of risk as people’s tax dollars have largely been used to prop up corporations or big finance.

Taxation is an issue that is unresolved as the major corporations’ demand to pay less and less while demanding more and more subsidies. As a result, the investment deficit in quality public services and social protection is also fuelling anger from taxpayers who contribute for the purpose of strong governance and the social justice of shared services.

The global model of trade has played a role in the growth of global wealth but has resulted in dehumanising supply chains, including the growth of modern slavery and the informalisation of work, while creating a model of development with clear winners and losers.

Failure to address the issues of rights, and the environment with social and economic justice as a lens for national and global governance, has created a backlash to the failure of the globalised economic model of mindless trade liberalisation. That backlash is also directed at national governments and, indeed, democracy itself with the rise of authoritarianism, fascism and dictatorship often managed by state terrorism against citizens.

And even as multilateralism has failed to tame global corporate power, the new monopolies of the big technology companies are effectively without regulation. This is based on a model of data mining for which individuals, governments and even business have not given informed consent or received reparation. Unless broken up, there are levels of corporate gangsterism and an intrusion into all aspects of people’s commercial, health, financial and educational needs that threaten both national capacity to protect the rights of people and further underscore the failing model of multilateralism.

For all the progress the intellect of humankind has created, we have failed to recognise the risk and to manage it accordingly.

A brave new world is not what we witness today and will not be a recipe for hope in the next 50 years if we don’t seriously consider a world where people and their environment matter ahead of profit. Nothing underscores that more than the realities of the climate emergency that we face today. If not addressed with aggressive action and just transitions that give people hope, we will end standing by as the extinction of the human race stares us in the face.

Can we learn from our shared experiences of the last 50 years, a period of time when our interconnections are greater than ever?

Can we change our economies and societies without lives lost through war or revolution?

The 50th anniversary of the WEF must hear the anger of people and accept a radical overhaul of the global model as an imperative.

A new social contract between workers, government and business based on the principles of the ILO Centenary Declaration is where change can start.



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Sharan Burrow

Sharan Burrow

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.