- The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting on May 22-26 convened business and government leaders to tackle some of the biggest global challenges, which right now include the economy, war in Ukraine, and the ongoing pandemic.
- This article is part of the “Financing a Sustainable Future” series exploring how companies take steps to set and fund sustainable goals.
- The series includes an advisory council of industry leaders. Some of their CEOs took the stage in Davos to talk about issues pertinent to global prosperity, including health, education, and the durability of ESG promises.
It was a WEF meeting like no other.
“Davos 2022 was a meeting of many firsts,” read one of the World Economic Forum’s own summary of the proceedings. “Our first Annual Meeting in the Alpine spring, the first physical one since the outbreak of COVID-19, the first since the invasion of Ukraine, and the first meeting of global climate leaders since COP26.”
Amid the sessions analyzing the impact of the war in Eastern Europe, and fretting about the global economy, many of the content sessions focused on issues that relate directly to the Prosperity pillar of the Financing a Sustainable Future series.
Prosperity goals seek to help communities thrive, through adequate employment, access to healthcare, and education.
Following is a look at some of what the CEOs of Pfizer, Bank of America, Infosys, and Deloitte, and their fellow panelists, had to say at WEF, on topics that are of critical importance to global communities.
A new commitment to global health
Global pharmaceutical company Pfizer made the biggest news out of WEF, announcing its new “Accord for a Healthier World” initiative.
Pfizer will provide all its patented medicines and vaccines that are available in the US or the European Union on a not-for-profit basis to 1.2 billion people living in 45 lower-income countries,” said global CEO Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, in a press conference.
“This includes all 27 lower-income countries, as well as all 18 countries that have transitioned from low-income to lower-middle-income classification in the last 10 years.”
As Bourla said, supplying medication alone was not enough to resolve global health problems in countries that lack infrastructure, education, healthcare professionals, and diagnostic tools.
To try and fill those gaps, Pfizer will deploy resources in Rwanda, Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, and Senegal to try and optimize local health systems on the ground. Pfizer employees can opt to volunteer with relevant NGOs to support these efforts, with their positions guaranteed upon their return. Insights from these new programs will be brought to other countries.
Pfizer is also partnering with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a vaccine to prevent Group B Streptococcus (GBS), which causes death to unborn and newborn babies.
In a follow-up interview with WEF executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, Bourla reflected that the new accord is “the fulfillment of a dream that we had…that by 2023 to reduce the number of people in the world that cannot afford our medicines by 50%. I think today, this dream is becoming a reality.”
Resilience and standing by ESG commitments
Do companies have bigger things to worry about today than ESG?
Shereen Bhan, managing editor at CNBC-TV18, and moderator of a WEF session titled “Global ESG for Global Resilience” asked panelists if global political and economic turbulence would set back the goals of sustainable development that many companies have laid out in recent years.
“I don’t feel there will be a setback,” said Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America, and also chairman of WEF’s International Business Council. “The reality is that operating companies have made commitments along multiple dimensions.”
Moynihan pointed to the progress made in getting more companies to adopt the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics that were rolled out in January 2021. WEF announced in May that 70 companies had included the metrics in their regular reporting materials, and 150 companies have committed to adopting the approach.
“When a company makes a commitment and their customers, their employees, shareholders, and the societies see that commitment, you can’t just say, oh it’s inconvenient right now,” Moynihan said. “It goes to the core of who those companies are.”
The panel included Alan Jope, CEO of Unilever, Emmanuel Faber, chair of the International Sustainability Standards Board, and Laura M. Cha, chairman of the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing.
Perhaps global enterprises are too far down the road to backtrack now. But what about the small-to-midsize businesses that form the largest portion of the global economy — and might not prioritize ESG in uncertain times.
“Disclosures, to some of the SMEs, are costly,” said Cha from the Hong Kong Exchange. “They don’t see the benefit. We have to educate that part of the sector.”
Jope echoed the concern, saying that even at Unilever, keeping up with disclosure is a complex and difficult task. “We need an on-ramp that’s easy for SMEs to get their feet wet in this space…Please, can we keep it simple initially? Let’s not let perfect get in the way of good.”
Access to education and upskilling
By 2025, WEF estimates, time spent on work tasks will be evenly divided between humans and machines, and some 1.1 billion jobs will be transformed by technology, COVID-19 disruption, and the accelerating transition to greener operations.
The “Accelerating the reskilling revolution” panelists came from a wide range of perspectives, underscoring the complexity of the topic. It’s not just about retraining global employees for the digital workplace, but ensuring that education opportunities reach those most in need and that countries investing in education find ways to capture the ROI and improve their own communities.
Digital learning has created new opportunities. “The overall education that’s available now between traditional skills, online, and in-person, is making sure that more and more people have access to it, and that is phenomenal,” said Salil Parekh, CEO and managing director, Infosys.
But marginalized communities around the world still lag behind, said Lady Mariéme Jamme. She is the founder and CEO of iamtheCODE, an African-led organization that teaches coding to women and girls via a digital platform across 70 countries. “I am extremely frustrated with the infrastructure, the content, and the connectivity for girls who are coming from marginalized communities all around the world, from Senegal to Mombasa, they don’t have access,” she said.
“We need to meaningfully give people access and invest in the last mile of education, so that girls like me can sit here in 2030, sharing their stories,” she said.
Developing countries cope with the problem of “brain drain,” when educated workers leave their home countries for more lucrative opportunities elsewhere, and lose the opportunity to strengthen their communities.
Najla Bouden, prime minister of Tunisia, said that her country ranks 8th in education overall according to the Global Innovation Index, and second in the percentage of graduates in STEM.
“We produce good knowledge, but unfortunately absorb little of it. We produce good doctors, engineers, and scientists, but this talent is leaving the country,” Bouden said. “This is a net loss of the investment and moreover a big shortfall for the country’s need to achieve prosperity for its people.”
Robert Moritz, global chairman of PwC says that ESG goals need to address access, quality, as well as entrepreneurship and economic opportunities where educational programs can direct the talent. “Otherwise you’ll have…where citizens in other countries [like] Tunisia are saying ok, I’ve got to move elsewhere, where’s the opportunity going to be for me.”
Public health and the economy
Lazarus Chakwera, president of Malawi, opened a panel discussion on health equity by imploring attendees to continue to invest in global health solutions, even amid global distractions like war in Ukraine.
“My appeal to you all is to make sure that initiatives like this that are aimed at investing in health systems do not lose their place on your list of priorities,” he said. “Because the loss of health investments is not merely a fear, but a reality, that critical players like the Global Fund are having to contend with.”
“This is not a gamble we can afford,” Chakwera said. “We must deal with security emergencies without compromising investments in public health because the future of our economies depends on it.”
Tolu Oni, a physician, said that inequity in healthcare starts with factors outside of the healthcare system itself. Exposure to air pollution, for example, has a disproportionate impact on marginalized populations, even within countries. Oni is the director of the Global Diet and Activity Research Group and Network, MRC Epidemiology Unit, at the University of Cambridge.
Deloitte’s global CEO, Punit Renjen, said that business has a role in delivering resources and technology to close health gaps.
He described a public-private partnership the firm entered into with the government of India and local organizations during that country’s COVID-19 Omicron wave, which facilitated at-home treatments for patients. Mortality rates dropped in areas where it was deployed, and the model was subsequently rolled out to 700 additional districts, where it’s also being applied to maternal health.
Caroline Anstey, president and CEO of the nonprofit organization, Pact, said that companies have an opportunity to drive improvements along their supply chains. “These are people who are artisanal miners who are delivering cobalt for all the batteries we use,” she said. “They are right at the beginning of the supply chain. Or agricultural workers.”
Anstey said that she has seen interesting partnerships spring up between companies and local governments to better serve these communities.
Renjen said Deloitte is held accountable to its purpose by its own workforce, the majority of which is made up of millennials and Gen Zs. He said: “When we survey my 86% millennial population, they say to me, ‘what does Deloitte do beyond its core profit motive? If I don’t have a credible response, I’m not going to be able to retain them.”
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