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The World Economic Forum Addresses Poverty and Injustice

Updated: Feb 13

Klaus Schwab, a business professor at the University of Geneva, founded the World Economic Forum in 1971. The foundation is funded by 1,000 member companies who have great influence in their industry or region, such as JPMorgan and Barclays. The organization is based in Cologny, Switzerland.

The mission of the World Economic Forum is to improve “the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas.” The organization’s annual meeting is held late January in Davos, a resort town in the eastern Alps region of Switzerland. During the annual meeting, 3,000+ business leaders, international political leaders, economists, celebrities, and journalist from 110 countries descend upon the town to discuss and brainstorm resolution of global issues.

The cost to join the forum is steep. The organization’s site states that an annual membership ranges anywhere from $50,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. The BBC reports that the annual conference is free for most attendees, but anyone there representing a company pays $28,000 to attend. Due to Covid-19, this year's event was held virtually. A summary of three sessions pertinent to marginalized and/or impoverished people follows.

Placing Gender Parity at the Heart of Recovery

Rania Al-Mashat, Egyptian Minister of International Cooperation, reported that her country was one the first to have progressive policies for women after Covid-19 struck. These 21 gender-sensitive policies encompass violence, children, and security for women. “Women’s participation in the economy is micro critical,” she said. “They increase GDP and productivity.” Al-Mashat also believes in including the private sector while encouraging female participation as a crucial component to impact society.

Equally progressive is the Centene Corporation, a managed care organization based in the U.S. During the pandemic, the Centene Corporation moved 66,000 employees home in three days and gave support for remote work. Amazingly, the company hired 7,000 people during this time. The company’s workforce is composed of 75 percent women with 55 percent at the director’s level or above. Robust leadership is comprised of 64 percent female supervisors. Fifty-two percent of all employees are people of color. The company also has an onsite child development center. The Chairman/CEO and President Michael Neidorff said it is important to have “courageous conversations where women can express their concerns.”

Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner, McKinsey and Co., observed the “dramatic setbacks” of Covid-19. He said, “80 percent of the 1.1 million who dropped out [from employment] the first month of the pandemic were women. Female poverty rates are nine percent higher.” He mentioned that society needs to “pull all levers” and “make sure that women have access to digital tools.” Sneader acknowledged the positive correlation between diversity and company performance. Retention is an issue. Sneader said when one cannot retain employees “it’s an enormous cost to a business.”

Phamzile Mlambo-Mgcuka, Undersecretary General and Executive Director of United Nation’s (UN) Women, along with Ántonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN, reached out to 444 countries concerning violence against women. The pair requested that governments “up their game,” intensify policies, and that police, the judiciary, and officers who dispense justice stand “at the front line” to end gender-based violence. Like Neidorff, she advocates taking away the burden of care from women who have children (and older relatives). Mlambo-Mgcuka said that accessible, affordable childcare has benefits like opportunity for women to enter the work force and a better education for children.

Delivering Social Justice in the Recovery

Session participants pondered the question: How can we work through our challenges? All participants strongly expressed the view that knuckling down on inherent disparities is crucial. Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, said the pandemic has not just exposed structured inequalities, such as digital inequality, but has exasperated them. He stated, “We can use the pandemic to reset the economy and inequality. We should celebrate diversity.” He noted that the timing of Brexit could not have been worse.

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, agrees with Khan stating, “Equality has to be at the heart of social justice. We have to listen to each other in a deep way.” She believes it will take more than a decade for a billion people to recover economically. Along with the digital divide, the vaccine is a critical inequality issue. She said that 22,000 black and brown people would be alive today if the Covid-19 rate was the same as white people. Bucher said what we need is a “fair and just recovery.”

The danger of thinking or working in silos was asserted by Anisa Costa, Chairperson and President of the Tiffany Foundation, whose plan of action includes: (1) listening to different voices to better inform business, (2) championing and advancing multi-stakeholder efforts, and (3) backing up words with action. “We need inclusive conversations,” she said.

“The B.C. [before Corona] norms and structures are gone,” stated Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation. Walker, advocating for more transparency, encourages corporations to look at their boards with plans to include more workers and people of color.

Stopping Poverty From Going Viral

One wonders if halting the viral nature of poverty is possible during the Covid-19 crisis with half of the world surviving on less than $5.00 a day. Nagla Rizk, professor of economics at the American University in Cairo, said 500,000 jobs were jeopardized by the pandemic. Women, children, and the marginalized were hit especially hard.

Asif Saleh, Executive Director of Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), asserted there are different strata of poverty. “The marginalized are becoming even further marginalized because of the pandemic.” His organization, wishing to assist the “ultra-poor” in Bangladesh, gives families an asset, such as a goat, and training. BRAC employees check up on the family’s progress and help build confidence. They make sure the asset is not sold and the children are going to school and receiving nutritious food to eat. The family also receives a two-year stipend. “Poverty is a multi-dimensional problem,” Saleh stated. After two years, the family’s earnings, health, education, and sanitation are assessed. If all boxes are ticked, the family graduates and are on the path to self-sustainability.

After the program graduated 100,000 families in Bangladesh, BRAC moved on to implement the program in six different countries. The program is now in 46 countries and BRAC is working with governments around the world. Of the 90,000 people BRAC employs worldwide, 70 percent are women.

Cardinal Peter Turkson said it is a “challenge to get vaccines to poorer countries.” He hopes “distribution would be equitable not nationalistic, but this is not happening.” Cardinal Turkson stated that upholding the dignity of every person is of upmost importance. He stressed the importance of multinationalism, solidarity, and sound bonds in which people care for one another.

James Zhan, Sr. Director, Investment and Enterprise of the United Nation’s Committee on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) said “low income countries have a need for affordable PPE. A step in the right direction is global partnerships among government, local producers, international investors and technology holders. There is a need for global action.”

Saleh agreed, stating, “We have to get our act together. It is the moral responsibility of everyone. We need to work together.”

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