By Julia Horowitz, CNN Business
The last time top politicians, CEOs and billionaires gathered in a Swiss mountain village to discuss society’s biggest problems and pitch their solutions, the coronavirus outbreak in China was little more than a remote threat. The economy was humming, and a major armed conflict in Europe was on nobody’s list of major risks.
More than two years later, the world has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But for the rich and powerful arriving in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum, very little has changed.
“Davos is the epitome of one of the greatest challenges to society right now, which is self-congratulatory elites,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale management professor who speaks regularly with many well-known executives.
The conference — which famously combines high-minded panels with flashy parties — aims to bring important people together to tackle pressing issues like inequality, climate change, the future of technology and geopolitical conflict. But the logic behind inviting some of the wealthiest people on Earth to solve these problems from a resort town looks even shakier these days.
Billionaires added $5 trillion to their fortunes during the pandemic, according to a report from Oxfam published in January. The world’s richest 10 men saw their collective wealth more than double between March 2020 and November 2021. Meanwhile, tens of millions more people around the world were pushed into extreme poverty as the global economy shut down, and many struggling households became reliant on emergency government support.
“The last two years have dramatized and clarified what has been true for some time now, which is an elite plutocratic class is not just leaving the rest of the world behind, but is thriving precisely by stepping on the necks of everybody else,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of the book “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”
This year’s financial market sell-off has hit the ultra-rich. But that won’t serve as much consolation to people in both developed and many developing economies experiencing the worst cost-of-living crises in decades. Soaring food and fuel prices are already causing hunger and hardship, fanning instability, triggering protests and emboldening political insurgents.
The 2022 forum was initially scheduled for January, but it was postponed after the outbreak of the Omicron variant. And while organizers have cobbled together a delayed springtime edition that they hope will remain relevant, many heavy hitters have scheduling conflicts or are opting out.
JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who leads America’s biggest bank, won’t attend the event, which coincides with the company’s annual investor day presentation. US President Joe Biden — who delivered a big speech at Davos in 2017 — will be wrapping up a trip to South Korea and Japan. China’s presence is much reduced, with its big cities still gripped by Covid-19 and its tech titans lying low.
The main event is likely to be a speech on Monday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is expected to participate via videoconference. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are also scheduled to deliver addresses later in the week, which will be scrutinized as EU countries struggle to agree on a formal oil embargo against Russia.
In the past, Russian politicians and oligarchs were a fixture of Davos. Founder Klaus Schwab has long emphasized that dialogue and deeper economic ties can promote peace between political adversaries.
“At this moment in history where the world has a unique and short window of opportunity to move from an age of confrontation to an age of cooperation, the ability to hear your voice — the voice of the president of the Russian Federation — is essential,” Schwab said when introducing Putin in 2021.
In 2020, the CEOs of Lukoil, Sberbank and Yandex were on the list of attendees, along with the country’s energy minister.
This year, Putin won’t be attending. Nor will any Russian officials, magnates or executives. Rather, the program features discussions on issues such as “Cold War 2.0” and the “Return to War.”
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