Does WEF still matter?

Leaders of big business, heads of state, high-ranking national officials, as well as academics and policymakers, convene at the annual Davos platform.

Co-Founder and CEO of the Motsepe Foundation shares her thoughts and takeaways from the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2023 Annual Meeting.

Discussion in Davos this year focused on the looming global recession, runaway inflation, and the on-going tragedy surrounding the war in Ukraine. Also, at the top of the agenda were concerns around energy. Balancing energy supply, the cost of energy and the journey to net-zero carbon, are global issues that we are feeling at home through the devasting impact of loadshedding.

The uncertainty surrounding the global energy crisis requires partnerships, innovation, and creativity to resolve.

Of the many thought leaders who attended, among the more interesting are those representing the creative sector. This year, delegates of the conference were joined by the couple Sabrina Dhowre and Idris Elba, Grammy awardee Renée Fleming, and the artist Maya Lin. From our continent, the musician and activist Angelique Kidjo drew from her international influence to raise awareness for development challenges unique to Africa.

By the end, I left with one strong conviction, which is that quality of life is not just for a few; quality of life is for all humanity.

The Role of WEF
Having attended many WEF annual meetings by now, I still feel that few other platforms can bring together so many decision-makers to offer insights, share ideas and facilitate collaboration.

This platform can lead to real actions, such as the public-private global health initiative Gavi, which was facilitated and launched at WEF in 2000. It has since saved the lives of more than 13 million people.

The central concept of the Fourth Industrial Revolution was also conceptualised by the creator and Chairman of WEF, Klaus Schwab in 2017. And as a result, we are better able to respond effectively – globally and nationally. We can reskill, we can develop appropriate digital infrastructure, and we can enlist 4IR technologies to transform Africa’s prospects.

Another concept, one I personally have become significantly involved in, is social entrepreneurship. First termed and conceptualised by William Drayton, the WEF Annual Meeting has propelled social entrepreneurship into the mainstream – encouraging decision makers who attend WEF to embrace an updated model of doing business, one that puts as much emphasis on the quality of life for people and the planet, as it does on profit.

The discussions that occur during the meeting have powerful potential to influence global leaders. Our own Former President Nelson Mandela inherited a South Africa of poverty, national debt and inequality. The Annual Meeting became a platform that helped him to build international trust, attract foreign investment, and return South Africa to the international fold.

Gender Equality
When I began attending WEF in 2013, most women attending the global meeting were wives of business leaders, accompanying their partners, and with limited roles in setting the narrative and sharing perspectives.

Today, WEF is far more inclusive, with women business leaders represented on panels, in meetings and participating in driving the agenda.

A highlight for more than 250 women attending WEF is the annual closing dinner, held at Schatzalp. The dinner is a platform for women to discuss what drives us, including our shared passion to use our achievements for the benefit of the women in our organisations and sectors.

Most enlightening about women’s changing role at the meeting, and their transforming role in politics, business, and policymaking, are their stories. Women such as Gretchen Whitmer, the Governor of the State of Michigan, worked her way into a position of influence without formal qualifications but with a unique perspective. Her focus on what she terms “kitchen table issues” has set her apart, leaning on her ability to intuitively listen, and from this understand and articulate individual challenges by relating them to state-wide and broader frameworks.

But there is still work to be done. While sessions discussing gender equality at WEF have become formalised into the programme, the presentations over the years require new approaches and wider debate. The pandemic shed light on the unsustainability of many interventions for gender equality by erasing much of the gains made over the last ten-years. These sessions discussing gender equality have not been able to attract a critical mass of men to participate. Transformative shifts in gender equality will only occur when men see how gender equality enhances their own lives, businesses, and societies.

This is where the inspiration for the upcoming International Women’s Day Summit comes. Hosted by the Motsepe Foundation in March 2023, it will be convened under the theme From Rhetoric to Action. With the aim to galvanise momentum, the lessons learned from organisations and individuals who are actively intervening to build an equal society will be shared. Touching on various themes, we will take a closer look into how gender equality initiatives differ by sector – shying away from generalist and one-size-fits-all approaches.