Falsina, Little at World Economic Forum

wmcdowell@hds.harvard.edu

For the first time, the World Economic Forum has invited religious and spiritual leaders, as well as experts on religion, to be part of its annual meeting, which is being held this year January 28-31 in Davos, Switzerland. Among the nearly 25 religion-related people who are expected to attend the meeting are two representatives of Harvard Divinity School who see great significance in the invitation. 

“The dominant discourse on globalization has always focused on economics and technology as main areas of concern,” said David Little, Director of HDS’s Center for the Study of Values in Public Life and Dunphy Professor in Religion, Ethnicity, and International Conflict. “Yet it is impossible to understand what is happening in the world without also looking at the way religious, cultural, and ethnic allegiances shape global events. If religious leaders can provide a shared, concrete message about the unique contribution they can make, they can start to play a role in reorienting the process toward a more just, peaceful and sustainable future.”

Little will attend the Davos meeting with Vittorio Falsina, Director of the Globalization and Religions Program at HDS’s Center for the Study of World Religions. “The inclusion of religious and spiritual leaders at Davos offers an enormous opportunity for religion to play a critical and responsible role at the globalization table,” said Falsina. “We are helping to facilitate these meetings in the hope that religious leaders will gain credibility and assume responsibility for the necessary role they have to play, by inserting an ethical and spiritual dimension to the shaping of this new world order.”

The religious leaders and religion experts were invited to Davos by Klaus Schwab, the Swiss business professor who arranges the WEF, but the invitation may well have not been made if it weren’t for the historic meeting of religious leaders held at the United Nations last summer. That experience in New York laid bare the challenges of bringing religious leaders together to talk about global policy issues. “It remains to be seen whether Davos can overcome the shortcomings evident in the extraordinary UN summit,” said Lawrence Sullivan, Director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, who was invited to Davos but is unable to attend. “Religious leaders may bring distinctive values to the global agenda, but they need to go to school on the issues and express their views in ways that engage policymakers. On the side of the policymakers, the cordial talk must be followed up with constructive working agendas and processes that really draw religious input into their ongoing decision-making and activity.” 

To address just these challenges, Sullivan, Falsina, and Little drafted a “concept paper” spelling out the goals and challenges of religious leaders’ involvement in the Davos meeting, as well as providing an analysis of six ways in which religion, culture, and ethnicity interact with the process of globalization. Falsina and Little say they see one of their roles this week to be to encourage the leaders to emerge from the meeting with concrete steps to take on issues of globalization and peace. They will also propose that the religious leaders make a joint declaration on the moral imperatives for the twenty-first century. 

On Monday, Falsina and Little will be part of a panel on Religion, Globalization, and Peace. The religious leaders are to address the WEF on Tuesday, in the meeting’s final session. 

“At least 5 billion people in the world are people of faith, so the world’s religions are already global players by their own right, and yet their leaders have not been invited to shape the orientation of globalization,” Falsina added. “Here is an important first step to enable them to start playing that role.” 

Among the religious leaders who have accepted the invitation to participate in the WEF are Israel Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Israel; His Eminence Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, Archbishop of Capetown, South Africa; the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist leader, and His Excellency Dr. Abdullah Bin Abdullmussen Al-Turki, Secretary General of the Muslim World League.