The annual Davos Conference 2023 of the World Economic Forum concluded recently in Switzerland, with the slogan theme Cooperation in a Fragmented World, aimed at searching for solutions to emerging global crises.
It is inherently significant that the Davos Conference, organised from January 16 to 22, saw the participation of more than 2,700 individuals, from think tanks to artists, from climate change champions to Nobel Peace Prize winners and refugees.
There were 20-year-olds alongside heads of state of 50 countries, 56 finance ministers, 30 ministers of commerce, 35 foreign ministers, 19 governors of central banks and more than a hundred billionaires along with more than 1,500 entrepreneurs. As youth representatives, 150 Young Global Leaders and 100 Global Shapers were also in attendance.
As a representative from Nepal – and possibly the only Dalit representative in attendance – I was also a participant at the Davos conference.
For half a century now, the World Economic Forum has been giving continuity to worldwide dialogue with the intention of addressing common global crises, which is in itself a positive thing. How do issues raised at the Conference move toward implementation, and how should they move in that direction? This can be debated endlessly. But there are also ample opportunities.
Upon returning from the Davos Conference, I keenly felt the need for a discussion about how and what kinds of benefits Nepal can receive from such conferences and international forums.
Nepal’s need for learning
Davos is a two-hour journey by train or bus from Zurich Airport. This little town located between two little hills has been providing an astounding welcome to the ultra-rich and heads of state from around the world for the past half-century.
It always snows in January in Davos. The mountains were smiling from under white blankets of snow. The temperature during this year’s Davos Conference averaged 15 below zero. But the residents of Davos complained that it has snowed less than usual this year. Although the entire city was buried under snow, the trains were operating without any interruption. The buses were running, too. The bustle of tourists at ski resorts was reminiscent of a country fair.
When I saw all of this in Davos, I thought of Nepal. In the country of Everest, our people are forced to migrate from alpine pastures to lower valleys to keep their families and cattle safe. Let alone a rail line running over snow, we have a tough time even running buses to these remote places.
Why cannot Nepal convert its constraints into skiing destinations instead? Should we rather explore these possibilities, or fall back upon cursing the fatalism prevailing here? When will we begin to recognise the vast reserves of native resources and possibilities? How can we bring new investment?
Investment to develop human capital and its subsequent utilisation is imperative for a country to become prosperous. About three decades ago, countries like South Korea, Malaysia and Thailand were roughly in the same condition as Nepal. However, massive investment into developing human capital has led to rapid economic growth, infrastructure development and social progress in those countries.
The international non-government organisation Oxfam has said that one per cent of the world’s ultra-rich own two-thirds of the wealth in the world. I had the opportunity of meeting three such individuals at the Davos Conference, where I tried to inform them about the possibilities existing in Nepal, in an attempt to entice them to invest in our country. If such high-level investments can be brought in through state initiatives, economic prosperity and development of Nepal is a real possibility.
Kickstarting a campaign
Learning from discussions at and around the Davos Conference, Nepal can advance a campaign aimed at bringing new investment by making preparations for high-level investment conferences where the rich of the world, along with heads of state and high officials of countries which have been assisting Nepal over many years, can gather to discuss investment opportunities.
These conferences can collaborate with the Investment Board Nepal, under the facilitation of a high-level mechanism which could follow up on the outcomes. The Investment Board, which was established to bring such investment into Nepal, could share short-term, medium-term and long-term projects, along with large projects of national importance. It can hold dialogues around economic and technical investment.
The one per cent of the world’s population who are ultra-rich are in search of even greater opportunities and possibilities. Social capital is just as valuable to them as monetary wealth. If these elements can be connected to each other, it will become possible to bring new investment into the country to increase production capability, create new employment opportunities, and open the gates to new possibilities to strengthen the economy.
Four hundred thousand young people left the country this year alone. At this rate, two million people will leave the country over the next five years. Nearly ten million Nepali people will acquire foreign employment permits and go abroad. If we add the Nepalis working and living in India, that number goes up to nearly twelve million. Only the children and the elderly will remain in Nepal. How can the country’s productivity increase in such a scenario?
New employment opportunities will not be created without large investments in Nepal. Therefore, it is necessary for the state and the private sectors to make strategic initiatives to bring investment through the forums such as the Davos Conference.
Many international companies were running individual cafes outside the Davos Conference venue where people could go and listen to or pitch their own innovative ideas. These cafes provided conference rooms, tea and coffee, and meals for free. In cafes being run by entities like Microsoft, Zoom, and Fly Emirates, CEOs from leading and influential global companies and billionaires listened attentively to the young people pitching innovative ideas. There was no protocol; all that was apparent was the desire to learn from each other, and the competition to attract as much investment as possible.
Learning from discussions
At the Davos Conference, the most widely discussed issues included the Ukraine war, the climate crisis, the growing food insecurity, and the fourth industrial revolution, from which also Nepal can learn a lot.
1. Ukraine war
Ukraine wants an end to the war and is desperately lobbying for international support, assistance and investment. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the Davos Conference through a video call; Russia has not been participating for the past two years.
In the geopolitical context of South Asia, Nepal has many pending issues and problems. Issues like internal and external security, and food and energy production, are largely dependent upon its two large neighbours – India and China. Although Nepal can declare itself a peace zone, it cannot ignore the possibility of crises that may arise from an Indo-China conflict. Nepal can take a leadership role aimed at defending its interests and for the common good of wider South Asia by identifying opportunities for diplomatic understanding along with flexible but strategic partnerships on the world stage.
2. Climate crisis
Experts at the Davos Conference said that humanity is not prepared to address or solve the climate crisis. Inflation, skyrocketing fuel costs and food shortages have increased greatly. There is also much discussion around decarbonisation and sustainable energy.
The International Financial Corporation (IFC) has projected that the temperature in Nepal will increase by about 0.9 degrees Celsius between 2016 and 2045. As global and South Asian temperatures rise, the risk of climate-related disasters in Nepal will also increase. This will not only affect the lives of the people but also have negative impacts on the economy, environment and development programmes.
The security of the Himalayan mountain range, regulation of carbon emissions and environmentally friendly policies and investments are the international agendas for Nepal. It is extremely important to find partnerships and collaboration on the global stage to address them.
3. Increasing food insecurity
The depletion of biodiversity, extreme changes in climate, and natural disasters have deepened food insecurity across the world. Climate change and food insecurity are interrelated issues. Food prices have skyrocketed. Shortages have become extreme and more lives have been pushed into crisis.
Various statistics suggest that around eight per cent of the Nepali population is at risk of serious food insecurity. According to a 2020/2021 report by National Dalit Commission, Nepal has an average of 77 per cent food adequacy while only 53 per cent of its Dalit population has access to adequate foodstuffs.
Food insecurity affects marginalised and poor communities the most. Therefore, the state must increase its investment in food production. No time should be lost in formulating and implementing a food security policy which contains special provisions, plans, programmes and budgets to include marginalised communities.
4. Fourth industrial revolution
Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, says that “…the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century… is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” He has called it the fourth industrial revolution.
Every year at the Davos Conference, discussions around artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing technologies and related innovations are given a prominent space.
In Nepal, however, the average citizen has received nothing but trouble in the name of digital service delivery.
Issues of governance, national security, transparency, and accountability are inextricably related to the idea of technical development. There remains a lot to be done.