Since its inception, the World Economic Forum here in Davos has been widely seen as a gathering of largely white, male, wealthy members of the western corporate elite. Some developing nations have had a high profile at this year’s event — Indian government and corporate delegations, for example, have been out in force, with several “pavilions” dotted along Davos’s central promenade.
Still — amid all the intense discussions of challenges affecting the world — there’s been no denying the pronounced under-representation of communities in the developing nations where most of the world’s population lives. Yet among those who have made the journey to Switzerland are some powerful voices, whose perspectives on this year’s summit are worth paying attention to.
One of those is Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, president of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad, who has been peppering panel discussions this week with remarks that may have made uncomfortable listening for some of the high-powered figures in attendance.
“This is a place of the elite, billionaires sitting together,” she told me after one of those sessions. “They have a limited vision, because they do not know the reality on the ground.”
In Ibrahim’s eyes, the spectre of hunger hanging over many developing countries proves the bankruptcy of the economic philosophy that has long characterised the WEF agenda. “The globalisation that they designed is not working,” she said. “If it was working, you would not end up with a food crisis all over the world.”
In today’s edition we feature an interview with another prominent activist making waves in Davos, the Ugandan climate campaigner Vanessa Nakate. Andrew Hill probes whether the metaverse could cut emissions from corporate travel, and Patrick has an update on Carl Icahn’s pig welfare campaign at McDonald’s (spoiler alert: it didn’t go well).
We’ll be back on Monday, with a dive into the furore over HSBC executive Stuart Kirk’s remarks on climate risk, and what it tells us about the state of sustainable investing. Have a good weekend. (Simon Mundy)
Vanessa Nakate is still waiting for answers
The evening before we met in Davos this week, Vanessa Nakate had spoken at a dinner event thickly populated by western business executives. For all the earnest talk about sustainability and justice at this year’s World Economic Forum, the Ugandan activist told the dinner guests that too little attention was still being paid to the starkest issues confronting developing nations — not least the effects of climate change in Africa.
“Maybe they listened,” she told me. “But I didn’t get an answer.”
It was a notorious incident in Davos that helped catapult Nakate to global fame. Her first visit came two years ago, when she took part in climate protests outside the WEF, and was photographed with Greta Thunberg and other activists. In the published version of that Associated Press photo, Nakate was cropped out, leaving only her white comrades visible.
Nakate has spoken of the pain that episode caused her, the sense of an entire continent being erased. This year, however, she returned to the Alps in about the most visible way possible, as a VIP guest, speaking on a panel with the head of the World Trade Organization. But only with far greater representation of Africa’s more than 1bn people, she warned, would the conversation at Davos properly reflect the continent’s challenges. “It feels like people are in their own personal bubbles, disconnected from the reality of what is happening,” she said.
Nakate started her activist career in 2018 as the lone Ugandan participant in Thunberg’s school strike movement. She’s now firmly established as one of the world’s most prominent climate campaigners, having made a huge impact with her calls for action during last year’s COP26 in Glasgow. While that event was more fruitful than many previous UN climate conferences, Nakate was left bitterly disappointed by the failure to set up a “loss and damage” facility, to compensate developing nations for climate impacts.
In her view, this is not about charity, but justice. Wealthy nations bear the vast bulk of responsibility for cumulative carbon emissions, she often points out. Africa has contributed just 4 per cent. For that reason, she argues, climate-related financial assistance should be provided in the form of grants — not loans that will add to a debt pile that is already eye-watering for many African states.
That’s anathema to many in the development finance space, who see huge potential for debt funding to help tackle the worst climate challenges in Africa and elsewhere. But Nakate is adamant. “When climate finance comes in the form of debt,” she told me, “it is only harming the communities that are already on the front lines of the climate crisis”.
Nakate wants more action on this front at November’s COP27 in Egypt. The fact that this summit has an African host is driving hopes of a better outcome for the continent. But that alone “doesn’t make it obvious” that the interests of climate-hit communities will be well represented, Nakate warned.
It could make a huge difference, she said, if organisers of events such as WEF and COP set up programmes to help members of those communities attend and share their stories in person. The potentates surrounding her this week “need to spend more time listening to the people in those communities, and get to know the stories beyond the statistics”, Nakate said. “People hear numbers and they’ll be like, ‘OK, that’s bad’, and then life continues . . . But climate change is more than statistics.” (Simon Mundy)
Is the metaverse good news for carbon emissions?
Holding the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in the metaverse would cut Davos’s carbon footprint at a stroke. This week, delegates have been able to experience a sense of what such gatherings might be like. From the crowded Congress Centre where the WEF stages its main programme, attendees donned virtual-reality headsets to be transported to a computer-simulated park dotted with pines and ringed by spectacular mountains.
This is “the future of collaboration”, according to the WEF. In it, delegates could meet to discuss the fate of the planet without the inconvenience of security checks, viral handshakes, unexpected weather, footwear dilemmas, travel disruption — not to mention carbon-heavy international travel. In the WEF’s Global Collaboration Village, participants were invited to try out the pilot of a metaverse platform, developed with Microsoft and Accenture, from the comfort of their chairs. From there they were transported to the edge of the Sahara to “watch” the dangerous advance of the desert from the shade of a virtual baobab tree (part of the WEF’s 1t.org project to grow, restore and conserve 1tn trees).
Given WEF participants’ unanimous welcome for the return of the in-person summit after two years of online gatherings, holding the event in the metaverse would be a hard sell. A virtual Davos would remove the central benefit of being able to lock eyes with their 40 most important clients within a few days, rather than flying to 40 different meetings around the world.
In truth, organisers see the metaverse platform not as a replacement for face-to-face discussion, but as an “extension”. But Davos 2030 could still look and feel very different. At an in-person digital strategy session, where executives from the likes of Google and IBM competed with each other to predict the next big tech breakthrough, Nokia boss Pekka Lundmark forecast that within eight years, 6G communication and greater computing power would allow the panel to meet as high-quality holograms. That would let the CEOs ground their carbon-spewing jets for good. (Andrew Hill)
Elsewhere in ESG: Icahn loses pig fight at McDonald’s
Our regular readers will recall Moral Money’s interview with activist raider Carl Icahn and his unlikely crusade at McDonald’s this year concerning pig welfare. Icahn hammered the company, not just on animal welfare, but also for chief executive Chris Kempczinski’s $20mn pay last year.
On Thursday, hardly any McDonald’s shareholders sided with the longtime activist investor. About 1 per cent of McDonald’s shareholders supported the two board nominees that Icahn put up for a vote at the company’s annual meeting, the company said.
Icahn’s campaign faced an uphill battle. He held only 200 shares of McDonald’s, not enough to persuade asset managers to vote with him.
The fight clearly was a case of losing the battle to significantly advance the war. The Humane Society, which partnered with Icahn on McDonald’s, noted on Thursday that after Icahn announced his campaign, other companies had scrambled to change their practices. General Mills, Conagra Brands and Denny’s have rushed to wind down their use of gestation crates in their pork supply chains.
Icahn’s campaign also strikes an awkward contrast with the Republican party’s fight against environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, in which former vice-president Mike Pence has claimed that “liberal activist investors are forcing private companies to abide by ESG investing principles”. For a time, Icahn was Donald Trump’s deregulation tsar, and he has been a multi-million dollar donor to Republicans across the country.
Icahn might have lost at McDonald’s, but the publicity around his campaign could yet have implications for the gathering culture war around ESG. (Patrick Temple-West)
Muddled marketing of sustainable investing products threatens to undermine confidence in the entire sector, writes Brooke Masters in this analysis featuring commentary from executives at BlackRock, PGIM and Pimco.