Swiss village near Davos Switzerland

Davos, Sustainable Development and an Open Mind

What did a sustainable development professional take away from mingling with the billionaires, world leaders, technocrats and financiers of Davos?

January 28, 2019

“Wear hiking boots.”

That’s the number one piece of wisdom you are given by veterans of the World Economic Forum (WEF) when you mention you will head to Davos. This is not only good advice, it is essential for survival on the snow-packed roads as a normally quiet Swiss skiing village transforms into the largest global gathering of the economic and political elite each year.

At the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, world leaders and celebrities mingle with the financial elite.

This was my first experience in Davos. It came somewhat late and with a cost risk: many WEF attendees reserve hotels a year in advance to avoid the steep CHF 4,000–5,000 room rates per night that await last-minute guests. Luckily, I got a tip about a little mountain town 45 minutes outside Davos that still had warm beds, reasonable room rates and an early train to get me to a breakfast meeting on improving the contribution of private finance to achieving the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

I didn’t know what to expect. On my way I heard of several controversies—notable world leaders cancelling participation because of challenges at home, the enormous carbon footprint of attendees’ private jets, the irony of the planet’s elite meeting to discuss issues of the middle class—but I kept an open mind. After all, I am a member of the Global Shaper community, and the WEF is an active member and collaborator with my main project, the Geneva 2030 Ecosystem. In all of my interactions with the WEF, it has been clear that they are 100 per cent committed to achieving sustainable development by leveraging the power of business—not working against it.

New Perspective

Kali Taylor in Davos
Kali Taylor leads a discussion on encouraging private sector financing in sustainable development.

I attended WEF to host and moderate a panel at the Sustainable Impact Hub on Accelerating SDG Finance through Collaboration. The Sustainable Impact Hub is a joint initiative by several United Nations, development and humanitarian organizations. It’s dedicated to creating a space to dig deeply into sustainable development and humanitarian issues. The panel featured leading experts from finance:

  • Lise Kingo, CEO & Executive Director, UN Global Compact
  • Simon Smiles, Chief Investment Officer, Ultra High Net Worth Individuals, UBS
  • Gabriela Ramos, Chief of Staff and Sherpa to G20, OECD
  • Nadina Stodiek, Fund Manager PPP Mandates, Impact Manager, BlueOrchard Finance
  • Francois Jung, Lead on Finance and Innovation, The Global Fund

At home in Geneva, I act as the lead facilitator on a collaboration that brings together development actors and private financial players to develop solutions to SDG finance, so this topic is well-trodden territory for me.

However, this panel of experts put a very different spin on the topic:

1. Innovation matters but so do the basics.

In the development arena, we are intensively examining novel financial instruments that can bring more financing to the SDGs (for example, blended finance and tokenization for infrastructure finance). The expert panel, however, highlighted the need to go back to basics to create consistency and clarity for market players to build upon. It was highlighted again and again that an “impactful” investment must be clearly defined so investors can more easily compare and make informed choices. There are a number of initiatives happening in this space, but consolidation is necessary—and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation Principles for Impact Management were given as a good starting point.

2. Measure what you treasure, don’t treasure what you measure.

In other words, there is an influx of data in the world, but making sense of it all can be a challenge. As a global community, we need to be clear what goals matters to us—such as leaving no one behind while achieving sustainable development—and find the right measurements to quantify progress.

3. Everyone has a role to play.

Mobilizing USD 5 trillion to 7 trillion per year to achieve the SDGs will require every sector of society to play its part—awareness raising, policy frameworks, measurement and standardization, financial product builders and corporate alignment must all be there in order to make a material difference for sustainable development. This means that each of our individual roles will be most impactful if we do it in collaboration with others.

Youth: Loud and clear.

I certainly took new perspectives and ideas from Davos, but there was one lesson that was not new. Davos reinforced something I have always known and will always believe: youth represent our greatest hope for progress and change.

Youth took centre stage in several important ways at Davos and made their voices heard. The Global Shapers community launched the #VoiceForThePlanet campaign that has already garnered over 35,000 pledges. One young refugee defied all odds by making it to the WEF to tell his story despite not having a passport and having lived in a refugee camp for over 20 years.

And Greta Thunberg put the show in perspective, taking a 32-hour train ride to the forum to tell leaders to “act as if your house is on fire” when it comes to climate.

“Our house is on fire.”
A part of my speech at the World Economic Forum today. Thank you for inviting me! #wef

— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) January 25, 2019

Davos may be cold, but the need to act now has never burned stronger.