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In Davos, everyone is worried about the ‘forgotten’ people

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been a fixture at Davos since he came to power in 2015, used his time on the main stage of the World Economic Forum on Tuesday to once more champion the cause of women's rights, hailing the emergence of the #MeToo movement and touting upcoming pay-equity legislation in his country.

And, like many other speakers at the forum, Trudeau gestured to the profound uncertainty gripping Western societies being buffeted on one side by sweeping technological transformation and on the other by populist anger and disaffection.

“The unrest we've witnessed is driven by anxiety and fear — fear of what a rapidly changing world means for workers and their families, and for those who are already struggling in the existing economy,” Trudeau said. “And that fear — that anxiety — is valid.”

He went on: “We cannot neglect our responsibility to the people who matter most, to the people who aren't here in Davos and never will be.”

The people who come to Davos are certainly good at talking about those who are not in Davos. This is an event, after all, for the global bien pensants, fertile ground for cheery philanthropists and photogenic celebrity activists. The forum, for example, has sought to spotlight the plight facing tens of millions of refugees and migrants around the world. A 75-minute simulation allows participants to experience a “day in the life” of a refugee — a project that's meant to humanize the very people used as punching bags by some politicians in the West.

“I think it’s shameful. There’s so much misinformation about refugees,” said Cate Blanchett, the Australian actress who is also a goodwill ambassador for the U.N.'s refugee agency. “They are forced to flee, and then they are vilified in the media.”

If nationalist politicians such as President Trump have championed a mythic "forgotten man" — a downtrodden, disaffected working stiff desperate to reclaim his country from those who have changed it — the forum is consciously trying to offer a counterpoint. Peter Maurer, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, sought to draw attention to the true "forgotten people" and "forgotten conflicts" in the world. He pointed to simmering crises in various regions of Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, that threaten to blow up into "full-fledged" catastrophes in the months to come.

Despite the huge global need, Maurer said, the humanitarian community faces a mammoth funding shortage for the problems it already faces, let alone being able to mitigate against new disasters. “We are confronted in 2018 with a big gap between needs of people and the capacity of the international system as a whole to respond,” he said.

The Washington Post is in Davos. Hear from our reporters on the ground at this year's World Economic Forum. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

That lack of empathy and global action frustrates some observers in Davos. “Historically, migration has a positive force in societies and economies around the world,” said William Swing, the director general of the International Organization of Migration, to Today's WorldView. “We need to recognize that migration is not an issue to be 'solved.' It is a human reality that we need to manage, humanely and responsibly.”

But that's simply not happening in most Western countries. “People look to their leadership, and there just isn't a lot of political courage and leadership on the issue of migration right now,” Swing said.

Beyond questions of identity and immigration, participants echoed Trudeau's concern about growing social divides. Even discussions on foreign policy and geopolitics circled back to the plight of “the precariat” — a term describing the hundreds of millions of workers around the world whose livelihoods are potentially at risk because of accelerating digitalization and automation.

Needless to say, those worries have had broad political effects. “President Trump, British Prime Minister Theresa May and a slew of other leaders from Austria to Turkey promised their voters a rollback of globalization, one that has largely yet to materialize,” noted my colleague Heather Long, who is also here with me in Davos. “Among business leaders, alarm is growing that voters may elect even more populist leaders in the coming months or years if they become dissatisfied with the current batch.”

Long explains why this worries so many business leaders: “Populism is a risk to their wealth, and one that is hard to control or predict. It could lead to war or, more likely, barriers to the flow of people, ideas and goods across borders that has helped so many large multinational corporations achieve record profitability lately.”

It's not just business leaders who are concerned. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking Tuesday morning, lamented the disillusionment seeping into the West.

“Many societies and countries are becoming more and more focused on themselves,” he said. “It feels like the opposite of globalization is happening. The negative impact of this kind of mind-set and wrong priorities cannot be considered less dangerous than climate change or terrorism.”

He then voiced what seems to be the clearest theme running through the forum, underscoring the somewhat somber mood of the proceedings. “Everyone is talking about an interconnected world, but we will have to accept the fact that globalization is slowly losing its luster,” Modi said. “The solution to this worrisome situation against globalization is not isolation. The solution is in understanding and accepting change.”

But outside Davos, that understanding seems in short supply. Valter Sanches, the general secretary of IndustriALL Global Union, which represents about 50 million workers in more than 140 countries, said that the chasm between rich and poor was only growing wider. And the politics of the moment don't seem capable of breaching the gap.

The forum's governing theme, Sanches noted, is “Creating a shared future in a fractured world.” But in reality, he told Today's WorldView, most people can see the “fractured world — but not a shared future.”

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