Photo by: Boris Baldinger / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, marks the beginning of what promises to be a hugely consequential year for global efforts that depend on functional international cooperation.

Whether Davos attendees will find a way to tap into the problem-solving spirit that brings them together every year on the so-called “magic mountain” remains to be seen. Some of the early signals suggest a rocky path ahead — World Bank President Jim Kim, previously a co-chair of this year’s meeting, abruptly announced his resignation earlier this month. U.S. President Donald Trump and the entire U.S. delegation, French President Emmanuel Macron, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May have also opted to skip Davos to deal with their respective government crises at home.

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In the midst of that tumult, and with many influential leaders focused elsewhere, the development community faces an uphill battle to ensure enough of the world’s attention — and money — remains fixed on finding and funding solutions for some of the biggest challenges facing the planet.

The theme of this year’s invitation-only event in the luxury ski resort town in the Swiss Alps is how to cope with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the opportunities and challenges emerging technologies pose for society. Leaders will meet to discuss the geopolitical transition the world is experiencing, inequality, and climate change, with technological disruption as the underpinning theme, Paul Smyke, head of the North America regional agenda at WEF, said in a briefing with reporters.

Here is a preview of some of the issues that are emerging as priorities for the development community at Davos, with more to come in Devex’s briefings from the conference, which you can sign up to here.

Disability inclusion

Disability inclusion is a prominent theme on the Davos agenda, which campaigners say makes for a refreshing change from past years. Fifteen percent of the world’s population lives with a disability, often leading to exclusion from employment, education, and other social services. People living in low- and middle-income countries are even more likely to be marginalized and suffer from stigma because of their disability.

The issue has been rising up the global agenda in recent years, especially in the United Kingdom, which co-hosted the first Global Disability Summit with the government of Kenya last year.

“We cannot have a pick and mix approach to inclusion.”

— Caroline Casey, inclusivity activist and WEF young global leader

Inclusivity activist and WEF young global leader Caroline Casey, who is legally blind due to ocular albinism, told Devex that business has the real power to address these inequalities by hiring more people with disabilities. She has founded the #valuable campaign, which has the backing of Unilever’s outgoing CEO Paul Polman amongst others, aiming to get commitments from 500 business leaders. She will launch the campaign from the Davos mainstage next week.

“If we have 500 CEOs ... collectively that is the tipping point to end ‘a la carte inclusion’ which exists in development aid, politics, and business. We cannot have a pick and mix approach to inclusion … business has to lead that charge and take disability seriously,” she said.

Other agenda highlights include the “Davos in the Dark” event, billed as a “collective experience in total darkness, led by visually impaired guides, which aims to change perceptions of the self and what people with different abilities can do.”

Technology — maximizing the benefits and minimizing the risks

Conversations on issues such as privacy, bias, and security are becoming more common in the tech industry as companies work to build a culture of ethics — yet experts from WEF say these concerns are not up to the tech industry to solve alone.

Technology runs the risk of “making the most vulnerable people on the planet even more vulnerable,” said Derek O’Halloran, who leads WEF’s Future of Digital Economy and Society initiative.

Taking the conversation on ethics and technology beyond Silicon Valley

At Davos, leaders across sectors can build partnerships to mitigate the risks associated with technology and development.

These conversations must include governments from those countries that could have the most to gain or lose, depending on how these emerging technologies are developed, as well as NGOs that work with some of the most vulnerable populations within those countries, he added.

Davos will provide a forum for discussions on how to embed social responsibility in the development of new technology, as well as how to make sure digital technology leads to inclusive growth — the topic of a side event featuring Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma and World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva.

Global health

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will host a conversation in Davos on investing in global health, looking ahead to important financing events for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Polio Eradication Initiative; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and the Global Financing Facility.

“Over the next 18 months, all four of these are kind of a critical point where the
level of distraction by domestic issues or issues that are confined to the rich world do make us somewhat concerned that the great success story here and the need to renew these resources may not get the attention it deserves,” Bill Gates said in a conference call with reporters this week.

He will join leaders including Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the World Health Organization, Gavi Chair Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, and Peter Sands, executive director of the Global Fund, to make the case for renewed commitments for global health. Gates said the Gates Foundation has invested almost $10 billion in these global health funds, which represents $1 in every $5 it invests.

Beyond global health financing, a number of sessions and side events will also highlight how to harness the power of technology for global health, for example in a session where the Asian Development Bank will share the ways it is acting on recommendations from WEF around health informatics standardization.

Investing in humanitarian relief

New ways of getting the private sector involved in funding, designing, and delivering more effective and sustainable relief programs as the complexity of crises increases is also a development topic to watch.

Getting investors interested in crisis response has been a growing focus at Davos in recent years, according to Sara Pantuliano, acting executive director and head of humanitarian programs at the Overseas Development Institute. While the concept is still fairly new for both investors and humanitarian actors and there is work to be done on defining specific investment opportunities, the conversation is maturing, Pantuliano said.

She hopes Davos will offer an opportunity “to really try and progress the conversation further by identifying more concrete investments for investors to encourage them to come into fragile settings.”

ODI is co-hosting a breakfast discussion on the potential of impact bonds and other blended finance instruments to fund work in fragile settings. Davos will also be the venue for the official launch of a high-level group on humanitarian investing, co-chaired by WEF, the World Bank, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Editor’s note: Devex reporter Sophie Edwards contributed reporting from London.

About the authors

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.
  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.