World Economic Forum begins with global financial turmoil top on leaders' minds

A sign is pictured on a door of the Congress Centre before the start of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum 2014 in Davos on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A sign is pictured on a door of the Congress Centre before the start of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum 2014 in Davos on Tuesday, Jan 21, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Ask the world's top business and political leaders what they worry about most for the year ahead and what do you get?

Well, not surprisingly, they are most concerned about financial turmoil that might hit global markets, taking businesses and economies down, and giving rise to unemployment over the longer term.

The next items on their worry list, however, are a little less expected.

Water crises, severe income inequality and the world's failure to deal with the impact of global warming and climate change.

These were the findings of this year's Global Risks Report, based on extensive surveys with top business and political chiefs around the world. The survey is published annually by the World Economic Forum, which organises the annual Davos conference, which kicks off here on Tuesday evening.

"Advanced economies remain in danger of fiscal crises," the report said. "Given the US's official public debt of more than 100 per cent of its GDP, and Japan's of more than 230 per cent, investors may at some point conclude that these levels are unsustainable.

"A fiscal crisis in any major economy could easily have cascading global impacts."

But the report also goes on to add that apart from pressing economic concerns, the environment also seems to be keeping leaders up at night.

"Water crises, for instance, rank the the third highest concern...Climate change, ranked fifth on the list, is the key driver of such uncertain and changing weather patterns, causing an increased frequency of extreme weather events such as floods and droughts."

Ironically, the WEF Risk report also found that the growing gap between rich and poor was also on the minds (it ranked number 4) of those who attend this high profile talkfest held in this swish Alpine resort.

So, income inequality looks set to be a key topic on the agenda, not least after a report this week by the British non-government organisation, Oxfam, which noted that the world's richest 85 people hold as much of the wealth as the bottom half of its population.

"It is staggering that in the 21st century, half of the world's population own no more than a tiny elite whose numbers could all sit comfortably in a single train carriage," said Ms Winnie Byanyima, Oxfam's executive director.

Many of those attending the week-long, by-invitation only conference here might be among the world's richest.

A CNN report noted that the cost of attending the event - including business class travel, private road or helicopter connections from Zurich to the mountain resort of Davos, and food and accommodation- could work out to over US$40,000 a person.

No one gets to Davos unless he is very rich, or influential, and probably both.

But one other factor often marks out the Davos man - a seeming desire to see the world do better. This is a meeting of the great and the good, with a unique sense of wanting to do good.

The event's organisers, after all, have adopted the rather grand motto, quite matter-of-factly: "Committed to improving the state of the world".

Even the Pope seems to have bought into this mission, having sent a special message that was read out by a Cardinal.The Pope urged business and political leaders attending the forum to address an issue that has been very much on his mind since he assumed the papacy last year - helping the less well off in societies, rich and poor, around the world.

No doubt, his message will be warmly received by his affluent, influential, and well-meaning audience.