WEF Davos 2024: Restoring trust to knit together a fractured world

The world has entered perhaps its most dangerous era in over a century as it continues to fragment into irreconcilable poles and as atrocities against civilians goes well beyond recognisable limits. Can the WEF at Davos begin to right an badly unbalanced world?

Opinion by

The theme for this year’s World Economic Forum at Davos is ‘Restoring trust’. It is an admission that trust – however you define it – has been broken and that its restoration is of such crucial consequence that some of the world’s great business, cultural, scientific and ethical minds will be expected to focus their enormous collective intellect to finding out ways and means of doing so.

This endeavour could not have come at a more apposite time. Rarely has the world experienced such a fragmentation, such bitterly opposed viewpoints, such adamant refusal to yield any ground and such a complete lack of trust in the motives of any party not supporting one’s perceptive, as we see today.

The fault lines have been present for decades but over the last few years, they have widened alarmingly, driving the world’s population into more defined and opposing camps. 

The politics of race, again long simmering just below the surface, especially in the West, finally burst into lurid, terrifying light in the US with the public killing of George Floyd by an American police officer and demonstrations and movements against police brutality spread across the world – a clear indication that perhaps the majority of people could understand and empathise with what Black Americans had to endure.

Religious intolerance, in the form of Islamophobia and antisemitism, has grown to such levels that many jurisdictions have had to introduce special criminal legislation against perpetrators of such ‘hate’ crimes. Countries once admired for their religious inclusivity, such as India, have lost their halos as Muslim and Christian minorities report increasing victimisation by the Hindu majority.

Ethnic-based violent conflicts made a malign reappearance in Ethiopia as the government went to war against the province of Tigray. Sudan descended into a brutal killing field as one faction of the former military alliance that ruled the country fell out with the formal army.

Gender-oriented clashes, some of long standing, others fairly modern in origin, grabbed headlines as establishment figures and media supremoes were accused of sexual crimes and brought down in disgrace. Meanwhile, the battle lines for and against abortion were redrawn as statutes were challenged.

The question of sexual orientation and preferences – once only whispered in dark corners – now occupy centre stage and the right to choose one’s own orientation and sexual identity is part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Countries like Uganda which have criminalised such choices have felt the full brunt of economic and other sanctions. We have seen similar trends in Eastern Europe in countries like Poland and Hungary.

Bewildering spectrum of changes

The bewildering spectrum of changes that have sprouted over a short period and that are still in processes, has accelerated two trends – one has been the fracturing of old social and class structures and the other has been the creation of new policies. Social media with its echo-chambers dictated by algorithms has intensified and globalised the polarisation. Every day brings us fresh evidence of ‘old world’ certainties clashing with new realities.

In the midst of all these changes and fragmentations, trust in long-established institutions, including the state and democracy as well as the probity of national leaders has been steadily eroding.

The lack of trust in elected governments to solve problems or even care for its citizens has shaken confidence in democracy as an institution. Many of the weaker governments have had to resort to the use of brutal paramilitary forces, or draconian legislation, to curb legitimate demands from their citizens while coups have suddenly begun to sprout rapidly again, particularly in West Africa.

The mainstream media in virtually all legislations has lost its former roar and, with a few exceptions, now seems to purr demurely as demanded by the state authorities even in countries where freedom of expression and the right to criticise the government is part of the nation’s cardinal building blocks. 

The stark case in point is that of the Western media which thundered in full-throated voice about the violation of human rights and war crimes committed by Russians during the invasion of Ukraine but could not get past weasel words and elaborate caveats when more starving, thirsty and totally vulnerable Palestinian men, women, and children were killed in two months in Gaza than Ukrainian civilians in two years of war.

Severe blow to US standing

For the majority of people in the Global South – who form the majority of the world’s population, the US stance, with President Biden rushing more arms to one of the world’s most powerful military nations while doing nothing to protect perhaps the most exposed and defenceless collection of refugees in the world, the message being sent is chilling.

To the Global South, it is also clear that there is a sharp distinction in the value placed on White lives as opposed to non-White lives.

This severe blow to US standing and trust is happening at a time when the world is casting around for strong global leadership to try and knit up a fragmenting order, a role that Biden took upon himself as an antidote to President Trump’s isolationism. 

Again it was the US that vetoed three UN Security Council proposals to call for an immediate cease-fire and allow humanitarian aid to flow. Its objections were based on semantics. 

This is another blow to the effectiveness of the Security Council, which has formed as a major plank in the international world order and further eroded trust in the values of the big powers.

Commenting on the US double-standards on Israel and Russia, Patrick Wintour, the UK Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor says such “glaring national hypocrisy can come with a high price tag, in terms of lost credibility, damaged global prestige and diminished self-respect.

It is already having a real-world impact on relations between the global north and south, and west and east, creating consequences that could reverberate for decades” 

He goes on to quote Nigerian Udo Jude Ilo as one of a very large number of observers and commenters who says: “We are now in a situation where the identity of the aggressor or the identity of the victim determines how the world responds, and you cannot maintain an international framework of protection if it is available á la carte.”

It confirms a long-held belief that whatever high minded principles and values the West so readily pronounces on, when it comes to the push, its self-interest overrides everything; and that it places very different values on White as opposed to non-White lives.

Pregnant in that statement is the widening rift between the North and South, with the recent expansion of the BRICS+ to 10 members including the Gulf energy producers which control trade choke-points, the Suez Canal, Bab el Mandeb passage and the Strait of Hormuz. 

The world cannot afford another war, military or economic; it needs time to get over current polycrises and absorb all the changes and disruptions of the last five years. Above all, it needs to have confidence that our global leadership will resurrect and maintain an international order that is fair and just for all. 

The first step will be to end the war in Gaza, which can be done immediately, and then to use third parties, for example, African and Asian intermediaries, to scale down the Ukraine conflict and find a resolution. For this, trust in the goodwill of our fellow humans is all important.

If the WEF in Davos can take us a few inches closer to confidently restoring trust, it will have served its purpose many times over.

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