FleishmanHillard Davos Digest World Economic Forum 2021 – The Davos Agenda

The view from around the world

Stephanie Bailey, Senior Partner, Managing Director of Corporate and Head of FleishmanHillard COP26 Unit

What a year. What a year.

At the WEF Davos Summit last January, there was hardly a mention of the new coronavirus emerging from Wuhan, China. Barely a peep. Nothing really given what was about to hit the world.

One year on and Davos is radically different. The reverberations of a genuine global crisis have taken their toll. And the World Economic Forum has tried to respond.

For the first time in its history, the event has adopted a new twin-summit format with the first half taking place virtually this past week. Organizers are (optimistically) planning for an in-person WEF to take place in Singapore in May. The altered format, where the world’s political and business leaders are sharing screens rather than the stage, has had its effect on the impact of a normal agenda-setting event.

WEF’s leaders and participants are hoping that out of the pandemic, change will emerge that will ultimately improve the world. This year’s Davos theme, ‘The Great Reset’, is touted as a commitment to urgently build the foundations of economic and social systems to ensure a fairer, sustainable, and more resilient future.

It’s a noble and necessary ambition, but it remains to be seen whether Davos can spur action from its words – after all, global cooperation and coordination have been in short supply over the past year.

So far, so muted. We look forward to the next phase of Davos, which may give us a glimpse of what ‘The Great Reset’ can achieve. In the meantime, we reached out to our teams across the FleishmanHillard network for their take on how the past week’s event was covered in their market and how WEF’s priorities are being addressed by their own leaders.

Read on for a global perspective of the first virtual Davos.

Stephanie Brochard, Senior Account Manager, Sustainability and Maria Elena Sandalli, Account Executive, FleishmanHillard Brussels

Europe calls for global cooperation to protect of democracy and promote climate action

As Europe is about to enter one year since the pandemic hit the continent, it’s been all about rebuilding, building better, and being ready for the next crisis. There is optimism, driven by the change of leadership in the US, and economic powerhouses around the world joining Europe’s ambition to reach climate neutrality by 2050. But there is also determination, fuelled by the ambitious legislation the EU is seeking to enact in greentech, and pandemic’s lesson that no one can succeed alone.

Davos is usually the time for collaboration and partnerships, and this year was no different. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen exhorted all global partners to strengthen cooperation to overcome the challenges of today and tomorrow, namely climate change, protecting biodiversity, and ensuring that democracy survives “the darker sides of the digital world”. Eyeing, in particular, the new US leadership, she called for joint action across all issues, from a ‘Paris-style agreement’ for biodiversity in Beijing to “a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide” and ensures protection of privacy and from cyber threats.

None of this is new to the EU and European countries, which, alongside the continued dominance of the pandemic in the news agenda, maybe why Davos was much less prominent in European media than in the past.

If partnerships are key to addressing the next big risks, whether societal or health-related, so are preparedness and proactivity. This means taking a more holistic approach, thinking in terms of environmental, social and economic sustainability, and bringing industry, key

economic players and social actors along. This is the aim of the EU Green Deal, and the many legislative proposals planned or this year on corporate sustainability, due diligence, sustainable finance, climate policy and digital markets. Europe has its agenda set, and called global partners to join in.

Tracey Nugent, Director, Technology, FleishmanHillard Fishburn, London

UK looks to carve out a new role on the global stage

There is usually some degree of cynicism in the UK press around Davos, with journalists quick to point out the irony of rich men arriving in private jets to discuss solving the climate crises, inequality and sexism. This year’s virtual conference made for a more inclusive event; yet critics still pointed out that for all its talk of progress, Davos has not led to much actual change. As Jonathan Michie, University of Oxford professor, wrote: “The hope is that this time, the scale of the emergency will finally make radical change unavoidable.”

Rising inequality, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic, was one such emergency that came up again and again during the conference. To coincide with the opening of the conference this year, Oxfam International released a report, entitled “The Inequality Virus”, which showed that a temporary tax on excess profits made by the 32 global corporations that “have gained the most during the pandemic” could have raised $104 billion in 2020, “enough to provide unemployment benefits for all workers and financial support for all children and elderly people in low- and middle-income countries.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan put this into a local perspective and warned of the key but often forgotten jobs risk amid UK school closures. Khan also sounded the alarm over the impact of the pandemic on women, “…I’ve experienced what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is talking about when [it] says — if we’re not careful, we could undo 30 years of progress made around gender equality.”

The climate emergency was at the heart of the Davos agenda and in some ways, it felt like an opening act for COP26 which will be taking place in Glasgow in December this year. On Wednesday, Mark Carney, the former Governor of the Bank of England, joined a panel with former US Vice President Al Gore where he stressed that the world is at a tipping point in the fight against climate change. Carney believes the political will and financial appetite is there, but institutions needed to create the right systems to harness and execute it. He, along with many other senior banking and sustainability leaders, believe that COP26 will mark a pivotal turning point in government and business response to the climate crises.

Britain needs to establish a new role now that it has left the EU, and Boris Johnson is betting on its sustainability credentials to fill that role.

Daniel Silberhorn, Managing Supervisor Corporate Communications, Lead Sustainability FleishmanHillard Germany, Frankfurt

Speaking at a WEF unlike any before, Germany’s Angela Merkel urges: “It’s time for multilateralism”

In the days before this year’s WEF, German media looked at the current global risks, highlighting that the past 12 months provide evidence for what it means if you ignore long-term risks and fail to take action as a global community.

Photo credit: Deutsche Bundesregierung / German Government

In her 26 January address, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the COVID-19 pandemic, a “disaster of the century”, has revealed the vulnerability of countries around the world, and urged us to learn the right lessons: as we are closely linked together, “our sense of community is our biggest asset.” As two key areas next to dealing with the immediate consequences of COVID19, digitization, a resilient health system and strong supply chains, Merkel emphasized loss of biodiversity and especially climate action.

As part of its Green Deal, Europe can become the first climate-neutral continent in the world, Merkel said in her address, reporting that Germany now generates more than 40 percent of its energy through renewable sources, and urging the European community to set the right priorities for the economic recovery: “More than 35% of our stimulus spending have to support climate protection, and about 20% have to go into digitization.”

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen continued the theme of climate protection, speaking about the established scientific link between biodiversity loss and global pandemics and urged global leaders to act on climate change. “We must learn from this crisis,” President von der Leyen said. “We have to change the way we live and do business to be able to keep what we value and hold dear.”

The WEF has been dubbed a ‘virtual brainstorming for the Great Reset’ in German media. The next step will be to bring the best ideas from the virtual brainstorming into reality. A job the international community has to tackle together, and Germany will be an important driver within the EU. The Race to Zero is on. Businesses need to be partners who credibly demonstrate they’re part of the solution.

Jack McGee, Associate Director, FleishmanHillard Dubai

Vaccines and Data are the New Oil

In a region where vaccinations are rolling out across general populations at a faster rate than in many places, vaccine distribution and immunization efficacy have stolen the conversation.

Acknowledging those nations being left behind in the global scramble, what South Africa’s President Ramaphosa labelled ‘vaccine nationalism’, Saudi finance minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan announced an initiative separate from the WHO-backed Covax scheme to distribute vaccines in low-income countries in the Middle East and Africa. The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the challenges of social injustice, and the announcement comes amid increasing frustration with Covax, which Al-Jadaan identified as not being able to deliver sufficient numbers of vaccines to Yemen, for example.

Having already managed to vaccinate 82% of its population, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joked that he personally calls the CEO of Pfizer five times a day in an operation that is ‘like checking on munitions in a war’. Netanyahu outlined why he approached vaccine manufacturers and ‘offered Israel up to serve as a world lab for herd immunity’. Israel’s success in rapidly vaccinating such large numbers relied on a social security system with decades of digital medical records for 98% of the populace, competition between 4 health maintenance organizations, and a uniquely efficient distribution system. By sharing the data on its mass vaccination program, Israel hopes to serve as a global testbed for protecting populations and re-opening economies.

With initial vaccines still far-off in many places, the Middle East region is seeking to balance how it can still be part of the global race to control the pandemic while protecting itself.

Michael Schmidt, Partner and Public Affairs Lead, Washington

US, Biden get advice from world leaders, urged to curb ‘Big Tech’

For many years, top US government officials, regulators and CEOs went to Davos to be in the middle of conversations about the world’s most critical challenges. Things were different over the past four years, as President Trump emphasized “America First” and thumbed his nose at efforts by international coalitions.

This year, the virtual format wasn’t the only thing that was different. Rather than being in the middle of the discussions at the World Economic Forum, the United States was on the receiving end, with various governments and leaders encouraging and giving advice to the new US President.

European leaders called for greater international cooperation and encouraged President Biden to continue to have the US re-engage on the world stage, something he began immediately after taking office, rejoining the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization. German Chancellor Angela Merkel talked up the need for multilateralism to deal with the pandemic, trade and biodiversity. The European Commission’s president appealed to Biden to join the EU’s attempts to “contain the immense power” of Big Tech. President Emanuel Macron of France was even more direct, saying international cooperation was “stymied” by the Trump administration. “I have a lot of hopes for this new year with our American partner,” Macron said.

Even leaders that have had a tense relationship with the U.S. appealed to the new president to take a different approach from his predecessor. China’s Xi Jinping urged unity, the same word Biden emphasized in his inauguration speech. “As we cope with the current crisis and endeavor to make a better day for everyone, we need to stand united and work together,” he said. Russian President Vladimir Putin told leaders they need to help lower geopolitical and domestic tensions or there would be another world war. He also said the US should rein in Big Tech, saying it is dividing society. 

Environment comes to the forefront

Image Source: John F. Kerry, US Secretary of State gestures as he speaks to the audience during the ‘Special Address’ at the Annual Meeting 2015 of the World Economic Forum at Congress Centre – Congress Hall, January 23, 2015. WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM/swiss-image.ch/Photo Valeriano DiDomenico

US speakers at the forum focused on the need for urgent climate action and greater attention to the suite of sustainability issues. The range was striking: from Blackrock CEO Larry Fink advocating net-zero carbon emissions, to actor Robert Downey Jr. announcing green tech investment funds. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, talked up the new administration’s view that climate action will mean more jobs and greater profits.

Petar Miljkovic – Vice President, Omnicom PR Group Singapore

Geopolitical détente? How Singapore may host more than ‘Davos in Asia’ this year

As Singapore prepares to host “Davos in Asia” in May, the country made its presence felt at the virtual Davos Agenda this past week. It had several government leaders present throughout the virtual event, touching on sustainability, the role of digital payments, trust in vaccinations and healthcare systems, retraining talent and the importance of continuing with economic stimulus.

At last year’s event, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of Singapore’s place between its two allies, China and the United States: “From time to time, you will find yourself being pressed to choose sides.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong present at Davos 2020

But today there’s fresh hope that it won’t need to choose sides in the future. On 29 January, WEF Chairman Borge Brende expressed his view that US and Chinese officials would meet at May’s event in Singapore. PM Lee echoed the importance of this step in his special address on 29 January. “It cannot possibly be too late for the US and China to reset the tone of their interactions, and avert a clash between them. The new US administration is an opportunity to steer the relationship towards safer waters,” he said.

Yet with so much uncertainty around travel and the adoption of vaccinations, will Singapore’s time as WEF’s stand-in host actually come? Prime Minister Lee expressed reserved excitement, though said that countries will need to work together to develop a standardized system to verify COVID tests and vaccinations. For a country that has thrived in a world of open borders to become a true global hub, this can’t come quickly enough.

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