Davos 2023: cooperation in a fragmented world

Today is the start of the 53rd edition of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, a multi-day informal dialogue between top political and business leaders on the state of the world. Rabobank is a strategic partner of the Forum and has seen innovative projects emerge from this unique global network in recent years, such as Acorn and Rabo Carbon Bank. This year, new Managing Board Chairman Stefaan Decraene is participating for the first time, along with fellow board members Kirsten Konst and Berry Marttin. A look ahead.

It has been a long time since the world has been in as bad a state as it is now. The combination of the Covid pandemic and the war in Ukraine has shaken an already fragile global system. Economic growth is stalling while food and energy prices have risen sharply. The introduction to the program for this year’s annual Forum reads like a bleak analysis: rising inflation, major climate concerns, increasing uncertainty and vulnerability among large segments of the population in many countries. Sessions such as “Banking in the eye of a storm” and “Keeping the lights on amid geopolitical fracture” are scheduled in the program. The world is “at a critical turning point” according to the WEF.

Informal atmosphere, no negotiating agenda

Against this unprecedented backdrop, the 53rd edition of the World Economic Forum (WEF) begins today. The organization is seizing this opportunity to reiterate the value and necessity of dialogue and public-private cooperation. These are two strong pillars of the WEF, which provides a week-long space in an informal setting for leaders from politics, business, science and civil society to exchange views on ideas for improving the world. And unlike a UN climate summit, no one at the WEF needs to consider a formal negotiating agenda.

Rabobank’s new top executive Stefaan Decraene will be among those attending Davos in the coming days. Together with his Managing Board colleagues Berry Marttin and Kirsten Konst, he will hold talks with other participants from early morning until late at night and join the many panels and dialogues that will take place in and around the heavily secured conference center.

“For Stefaan, this is a unique opportunity to meet many of the bank’s relations in a short period of time; other bankers, clients, government leaders – everything will converge in Davos,” says Suzanne van Tilburg, Global Head Food & Energy Networks and coordinator of the Rabobank delegation in Davos for the past several years now.

Inclusive funding with Queen Máxima

In the coming days, Decraene will meet, among others, the CEOs of Microsoft, Signify (formerly Philips Lighting), trading company Trafigura, Citigroup, Axa and Aegon, as well as leaders of the World Wildlife Fund and the World Resources Institute. He will also meet Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and Queen Maxima, who is attending Davos in her role as special advisor to the UN Secretary-General on inclusive financing. According to Van Tilburg, the WEF offers a unique opportunity for top-level networking and discussing innovative solutions quickly and in an action-oriented manner. “Where in the past the focus was often on the world’s problems, we saw a shift towards discussing concrete solutions last year in Davos as well as at the UN climate summits. Hopefully, this WEF meeting will be the kick-off to a year of working towards how we can implement, accelerate and scale up these solutions.” 

Apt illustrations of this trend can be seen at Rabobank in Davos-born projects such as Acorn, in which Rabobank helps companies offset their carbon emissions, and the Food Action Alliance, an action-oriented platform co-built by the bank to mobilize investment for innovative food system solutions. And also Rabo Carbon Bank, through which the bank helps small-holder farmers around the world transition to sustainable agriculture, originated in Davos and is growing fast.

in text Davos

At the kitchen table

Many of the dialogues and discussions this year in Davos revolve around the three transitions that are central to Rabobank: the food system transition, the energy transition and the transition to a more inclusive society. “The Davos agenda aligns perfectly with our own strategy and ambitions. Food has become more prominent on the WEF’s agenda in recent years, and you can also increasingly see that the connection with other areas, such as water and energy, is growing. This is reflected in a session like ‘The interplay of food, energy and water,’ for example, which Stefaan will be joining.”

Moreover, says Van Tilburg, following the UN climate summits and the previous WEF meeting, agriculture is now seen as part of the solution to the climate crisis in Davos, rather than the cause of the problem. The agenda in this regard includes sessions on topics the bank has been working on for some time, such as better land use, afforestation, True Value of Food, regenerative agriculture and biodiversity.

Rabobank, along with hundreds of other organizations (banks, NGOs, governments, businesses), is a strategic partner of the WEF. Suzanne van Tilburg: “Because of this, we sit down at the kitchen table with all the parties with whom you can actually change the world. It is an agenda-setting platform and that also inspires us to hone our own transition agenda.”

Accelerating the energy transition

Whereas Rabobank is by nature a prominent discussion partner when it comes to food, the bank’s role in the energy transition is less widely known. “That’s where we want to position ourselves even stronger; and we can, because we’re number seven globally in the top ten renewable energy project financiers worldwide. Currently, 88% of our energy portfolio consists of renewable energy projects,” Van Tilburg adds. The agenda concerning energy in Davos will have two dimensions: in the short term, plans and actions are needed regarding energy security; in the long term, it is about reducing CO2 emissions with the goal of “net zero” emissions by 2050 and resilient energy systems.

The energy transition and climate change are inextricably linked. Rabobank wants to participate in the crucial measures needed now to accelerate the energy transition and wants to provide as much as EUR 30 billion in financing over the next few years. This amount will go mainly to insulating homes and buildings, building new renewable energy plants and startups focused on the circular economy. As the person responsible for this topic within the bank, Kirsten Konst will participate in more than 25 dialogues and talks in Davos over the next few days.

‘We have to walk our talk’

For Rabobank, the two transitions around food and energy are also connected through the third transition that is central to the bank: that of a more inclusive society. “You cannot build a sustainable food system without sustainable energy, and no system is sustainable if it is not accessible to everyone,” Van Tilburg explains.

Therefore, as with the previous edition of WEF, Rabobank likes to present itself as “the cooperative bank with a transition agenda,” the bank that is eager to help its customers get “from here to greener,” aligned with the Road to Paris report launched last fall. This revolves around the bank’s contribution to reducing climate change by limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition to measures within its own organization, the bank especially wants to help its customers reduce their impact on the climate. Social inclusion – for example, by being mindful of the interests of more than 500 million small farmers around the world – always plays an important role for the bank. And the bank already offers innovative solutions in this area, including through the Rabo Foundation and Rabo Partnerships. For this purpose, among others, alliances were forged in Davos to create joint digital solutions for improved market and financing access for small-holder farmers.

“This is the kind of solution we want to scale up further. It’s like Stefaan says: ‘We have to walk our talk’. For example, Stefaan will also join the Inclusive Green Finance Round Table organized by our partner Mastercard in the coming days. And Berry is the so-called ‘fire starter’ as a speaker at a high-level IDH workshop on how to combine social goals, such as fair incomes for small-holder farmers, with climate adaptation,” says Van Tilburg. She advised her delegation to bring some extra warm clothes, because after the relatively green Christmas, there is now a good pack of snow in Davos and the temperature will drop well below freezing over the next few days. It will keep the minds of the participants in Davos sharp during the many sessions, which is much needed given the major challenges ahead this year.

What about the WEF and The Great Reset?

In June 2020, WEF founder and president Klaus Schwab, along with then-Prince Charles, presented a proposal to sustainably rebuild the global economy after the corona pandemic. The proposal was titled ‘The Great Reset’. Despite all the good intentions of Schwab and his WEF-colleagues, the plan received quite a bit of criticism, especially from conservative circles where there were fears that the WEF was exploiting the pandemic to set up a new kind of socialism-inspired society in which the global elite would seize all power.

In particular, the timing of the launch of the plan, barely six months after the outbreak of the pandemic, fueled the idea among supporters of conspiracy theories that the corona crisis was being used to propagate this pre-existing Schwab plan. Some even claimed that the financial elite and world political leaders had deliberately created a pandemic to accelerate The Great Reset.

Those who dived deeper into the matter quickly saw that the accusations consisted mostly of untrue facts, false quotes and statements taken out of context. Hard evidence was lacking. But such accusations are not new. It is of all times that elites are strongly distrusted, and in the process their power is often exaggerated to mythical proportions. The WEF provides ample fodder for speculation: the world’s elites gather in a small mountain village, and although many sessions are also open to journalists, many networking sessions and conversations take place behind closed doors. This is the unique strength of the WEF, but sometimes therefore also its Achilles heel when it comes to its image to the outside world.