The other side of Davos: Reframing, rather than solving issues


Diwa C. Guinigundo

This may not exactly be the best time to be attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) being held in Davos, Switzerland this week of Jan. 16-20. The Philippines is embroiled in serious domestic problems too many to cite.

To be sure, the President will talk about the country’s macroeconomic resiliency that seemed to have motivated the establishment of the Maharlika Investment Fund. The Department of Foreign Affairs justified the trip and the announcement as “more of a soft launch.” One member of Congress argued that WEF is very important in rallying such a gathering of world and business leaders and inviting them to invest in the Philippines.

But we all know the Maharlika idea is at best tentative with many fundamental flaws. Some observers have grown skeptical of WEF as launching pad. For them, WEF has not been solving the world’s problems, but really just recasting the issues in another form.

C’est le ton qui fait la musique.

This is WEF according to Markus Giesler, a consumer sociologist and editor of the Journal of Consumer Research, in his great article on Jan. 28, 2015 for the Transnational Institute. Very much the synopsis of his article, his title is “Davos: Where journalism is PR and change is consumer choice.”

Giesler disclosed the key findings of his study conducted with Ela Veresiu on the sociological impact of WEF. Using institutional analysis, their study provided empirical evidence on the other side of Davos: That this global forum is not “improving the state of the world.” It’s a counterpoint in that the summit’s initiatives are found to even perpetuate those global drags of poverty and inequality, climate change and technology for years. He described WEF as “a master in redefining questions about political issues into questions about individual morality.”

This process of converting big political issues into individual morality and decision is Giesler’s “consumer responsibilization.”

One good example is former US Veep Al Gore’s argument that global warming is less of a political issue than a moral one. Everybody has a stake in it. “Each one of us is a cause of global warming, but each of us can make choices to change that with the things we buy, with the electricity we use, the cars we drive.” Gore effectively threw back to society all the blame of moral pathologies including entitlement and indolence.

Consumer responsibilization involves four stages.

First, solving those big issues is shifted to you and me. Second, WEF champions the idea that to solve such a global problem, we need to nurture more ethical consumer behavior by making markets more inclusive. Third, WEF then encourages world leaders attending the forum to create new markets for these more inclusive approaches. Last, institutional and individual actors are encouraged to adopt new problem-solving ethos. In other words, how to reframe the issues and the problems.

Their study therefore found that WEF has not solved pressing issues including poverty and debt. It has conveniently transferred the burden of solving these problems from governments and business to individual consumers.

Even media is a party to this. Giesler claimed that their method of automated content analysis of media coverage over 10 years shows its drift towards the forum’s official narrative. Presentations during the week-long forum that are more provocative and contrarian rarely receive enough mileage. WEF has become an instrument of defending institutions rather than questioning their fundamentals.

Thus, journalism at Davos deteriorates into merely managing public relation. For a responsible journalist is one who uncovers reactionary forces by writing clearly about them and siding with the victims of oppression and injustice.

This is the global forum that President Marcos, Jr. is now attending. In CNN’s coverage last Monday, Jan. 16, it described the attendance as “record crowds” but qualified that “its relevance is fading.”

It’s not difficult to see why. Economic decision makers since 2020 have been playing the game differently. Multinational companies have moved supply chains closer to home economies; they have become less globalized. Free trade has given way to geopolitical risks; trade and investment as a percent of global output has declined. Localization is the new buzzword.

While top CEOs from key multinationals have enlisted, the forum will miss the heads of state of the major economies and key emerging markets. Only a couple would take the main stage.

Most important, a quick glance at the daily program from Jan. 16 through Jan. 20 shows that numerous events are taking place at the same time. For example, yesterday, between 5-6 p.m., nine events were scheduled. But only two of them were starred by the WEF as “must-watch sessions.” These events featured Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky at 5-5:15 p.m., followed by a panel discussion on restoring security and peace at 5:15-6 p.m.

Unfortunately, the presentation by President Marcos, Jr. was unstarred and slated as a conversation at 5:30-6 p.m.

With participants being given the choice to attend these simultaneous events who could have attended his session?

As we write this column, we have yet to see whether the Palace advisers did the President justice by asking him to address one of the simultaneous events without the WEF “must-see” stars in a forum that seems to have lost its luster over the years. It would be perfect to avoid any mention of Maharlika. The President could focus more on our success in bouncing back from the pandemic lockdown, our new six-year development plan supported by structural reforms and infrastructure development in the last 25 years. Recognizing the problems that haunt us to this day would demonstrate that we intend to solve rather than simply reframe them.

But perhaps not in Davos, but in more appropriate forums like ASEAN+3 and APEC’s summit meetings. His cabinet secretaries should do the investment roadshows instead.

A modest delegation would also make his message more authentic.