Faith Agendas at the World Economic Forum Meetings in Davos, January 2024

By Katherine Marshall, Vice President, G20 Interfaith Association

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I was invited to participate in a series of events on the WEF’s “faith in action” initiative at the annual January gathering in Davos. The events reflected a renewed initiative of the Forum to integrate topics linked to religion into the program. The faith focus was especially apt this year where the central Davos theme was “Rebuilding Trust.”

The Davos Agenda on Faith

The discussions on religion centered on a new WEF report, released on January 17: “Faith in Action: Religion and Spirituality in the Polycrisis”. Its focus is on positive partnerships, especially with private companies. It also underscores the global importance of religious beliefs and communities in world affairs. The report built on meetings (that I also attended) in New York in September 2023 during the UN General Assembly. A webcast of a public panel in New York can be seen here.

Several meetings focused specifically on the report and on faith matters more broadly. The small group of faith invitees was included in an opening meeting of civil society representatives with Klaus Schwab (WEF founder and president). He expressed his concern at diverse indicators of declining trust, even among young leaders represented at Davos, and stressed the vital importance of “changing the narrative.” A small brainstorming-quality meeting on Tuesday was for the faith participants (but also included Katharine Hayhoe, whose focus was environment). That meeting explored ways to better integrate religious actors and perspectives in the WEF’s work, and reviewed the history of WEF concern for religious topics, including the Council of 100 on the West and Islam that was formed in the wake of 9/11. On Wednesday, January 17, a public event marked the release of the Faith in Action report (lightly attended but livestreamed). And a dinner (which I moderated) on Thursday evening featured eight faith leaders (“Dialogue over Dinner: Faith in Action”). Rabbis David Rosen and Pinchas Goldschmidt participated in earlier discussions but left before the dinner; Sharon Rosen (religion portfolio for Search for Common Ground) also participated in several events.

Karen Tse (International Bridges to Justice), with Hilda Schwab, organized a private meeting with Davos’ mayor in the town hall, focusing on spiritual gifts and peace and justice.

The dinner on January 18 highlighted the diversity and power of views of the eight faith leaders present. Each gave inspirational comments and attendance was good, despite sleet and rain. The speakers included two prominent Catholic Cardinals: Peter Turkson and Reinhard Marx; Al-Mahfouz bin Bayyah , Secretary-General, Abu Dhabi Forum for Peace, United Arab Emirates; Ephraim Mirvis , Chief Rabbi, United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, United Kingdom; and Angela Williams , President and Chief Executive Officer, United Way Worldwide, USA.  A central theme was elevating a focus on values and naturally the deep wish and urgency of peace.

Pope Francis sent a message to the event that highlighted both the turbulent moment we live in and moral responsibilities for action. One paragraph:

“For its part, the world of business and finance now operates in ever broader economic contexts, where national states have a limited capacity to govern rapid changes in international economic and financial relations. This situation requires that businesses themselves be increasingly guided not simply by the pursuit of fair profit, but also by high ethical standards, especially with regard to the less developed countries, which should not be at the mercy of abusive or usurious financial systems. A farsighted approach to these issues will prove decisive in meeting the goal of an integral development of humanity in solidarity. Authentic development must be global, shared by all nations and in every part of the world, or it will regress even in areas marked hitherto by constant progress.”

The Forum and religious engagement: Roots in History

It was some time since I had participated in a Davos or WEF meeting, but both my own and Georgetown University’s Berkley Center’s involvement from 2006 on was quite intensive. We were part of the Council of 100, a WEF initiative launched after September 11, 2001, to respond to what was dubbed “Islam and the West”. As part of a series of discussions and action, the Berkley Center launched what was to be an annual “State of the Dialogue” report. The Forum discontinued the C100 (including the reports) but continued to invite a few diverse faith leaders to participate in discussions, both as a “community” but also as contributors to the overall discussions of the Forum.  In a sense, the 2024 participation was along this line, though my sense was that the group was significantly smaller than in earlier years and the action was viewed as something largely new.

More broadly, the absence of religious voices during the 2024 meetings was quite striking to me, and underscores the challenges of bringing the positive and constructive roles of a religious “sector” or constituency to a forum like Davos. The theme of trust is clearly tightly linked to values, though that was more implied than spoken about directly, and it was not linked to any religious teachings or traditions (I did not even hear anyone mention high levels of trust in many surveys for religious actors). Some, for example Al Gore, who is on the Foundation Board, spoke to faith roles in a lunch for indigenous leaders that I attended. There was a moving session on Antisemitism that included Rabbi David Rosen (also Doug Emhoff, Second Gentleman). There was a quite large indigenous presence and focus, including participants from different world regions and notably the Amazon, and in those sessions there were echoes of both positive and negative tensions with religious communities. But in the many discussions about the US political situation and world conflicts, religious factors (positive and less so) were barely mentioned if at all.

Looking Ahead?

The WEF “lead” for the faith initiative, David Sangokoya, has a broad responsibility for civil society communities. Among the topics of common interest are a focus on indigenous communities (a good number were represented at Davos this year) and interest in a potential larger focus on the problem of human trafficking.

The “Faith in Action” group is one of several “communities”, others being indigenous communities, trade unions, artists, and disabilities. It is quite small. This year’s involvement was presented as a new start, with a particular focus on business partnerships and an emphasis on the positive dimensions.

All the Davos events went smoothly. Of particular interest was the private “brainstorming” event, where the role of faith within the Forum structures was touched upon more directly than in other sessions. The Forum will assess the overall experience (including faith). Some different thoughts were expressed during the brainstorming meeting on how to elevate the religious dimensions of the WEF and Davos program. One suggested an educational focus, to give participants the chance to learn more about different traditions. Another idea (and mine) is to integrate faith voices more across the program, in some sense highlighting the vast and complex faith “eco-system” and religious roles and perspectives as a way of spurring interest and curiosity and promoting engagement. We shall see what comes next! There’s work to do.

Snippets on Davos beyond faith

The faith discussions were among the many agenda topics for this year’s meetings and plenty of hot topics were on the agenda, Artificial Intelligence (AI) prominent among them, as was the situation in Ukraine and climate change. Overall, about 3000 people attended (an interesting comparison with the 90,000 at the December COP in UAE). Participants included the classic WEF mix, with a reported 350 senior political leaders, many business leaders, and a smattering of civil society (including the invited religious leaders and actors). The mix of attendees veers towards the male, though with rising numbers of women. By policy every panel had at least one woman (no manels) and I was told that if the woman (often it is one) cancels, that panel is canceled. You can listen to many sessions and read reams of material about the meeting online, among the bewildering array of events, public and less so – about 450 official events. The online presence reflects the WEF’s increasing transparency.

There are reams of commentary on the Davos phenomenon and agenda, to which I add only a few comments. The buzz about the 2024 Davos meeting centered on the many discussions about AI – its positive potential and risks. Many, myself included, were struck by the limited attention to COVID and pandemic preparedness. There was keen interest in the coming US presidential elections, some, though a bit less, on the worldwide concentration of 2024 elections.

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Professor Katherine Marshall is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. She serves as the vice president of the G20 Interfaith Association and executive director of the World Faiths Development Dialogue, and worked at the World Bank from 1971 to 2006, tackling development issues in the world’s poorest countries.