Davos Boss Warns Refugee Crisis Could Be Precursor to Something Much Bigger

WEF Chairman: We Are All in the Same Boat
  • Growing economic woe could set millions on the road to Europe
  • We must “restablish a sense that we all are in the same boat”

As the crash in commodities prices spreads economic woe across the developing world, Europe could face a wave of migration that will eclipse today’s refugee crisis, says Klaus Schwab, executive chairman of the World Economic Forum.

“Look how many countries in Africa, for example, depend on the income from oil exports,” Schwab said in an interview ahead of the WEF’s 46th annual meeting, in the Swiss resort of Davos. “Now imagine 1 billion inhabitants, imagine they all move north.”

Klaus Schwab
Klaus Schwab
Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Whereas much of the discussion about commodities has focused on the economic and market impact, Schwab said he’s concerned that it will also spur “a substantial social breakdown.”

That fits into what Schwab, the founder of the WEF, calls the time of “unexpected consequences” we now live in. In the modern era, it’s harder for policy makers to know the impact of their actions, which has led to “erosion of trust in decision makers.”

“First, we have to look at the root causes of this,” Schwab said. “The normal citizen today is overwhelmed by the complexity and rapidity of what’s happening, not only in the political world but also the technological field.”

That sense of dislocation has fueled the rise of radical political leaders who tap into a rich vein of anger and xenophobia. For reason to prevail, Schwab said, “we have to re-establish a sense that we all are in the same boat.”

The theme for this year’s meeting is the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which the WEF defines as a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”

While that presents huge opportunities, Schwab warns that technological innovation may result in the loss of 20 million jobs in the coming years. Those job cuts risk “hollowing out the middle class,” Schwab said, “a pillar of our democracies.”

At the same time, Schwab argues, trends like the sharing economy and the changes wrought by technology mean economists must adapt the tools they use to assess well-being. “Many of our traditional measurements do not work anymore,” he said.

After decades watching the ebbs and flows of the global economy, Schwab said the current anxiety is “not new” for him. But he said that as the world gets ever more interconnected, the consequences of such turmoil could become more grave. This week’s WEF meeting, he said, will offer policy makers “the first opportunity after the markets have come down to look at the situation and coordinate.”


The 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos

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