"A promising model"

29. December 2019
World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

The executive chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Prof. Klaus Schwab, wants to address climate change and other global challenges with citizens' assemblies.

In 2020, the world will celebrate the 75th anniversary of the liberal world order, Schwab writes in an article for the Irish Examiner published on 29 December 2019.  Most people agree that this framework - consisting of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other multilateral institutions - needs to be reformed to meet the challenges of climate change, rising inequality and slowing economic growth. Reforms at the global level, however, would not be possible unless more cohesive and sustainable societies were first built.

Ireland as a model

"One way to achieve this is through citizens' assemblies, as Ireland and other countries have introduced," Schwab said. Examples such as Brexit, US President Trump's blockade of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and Chile's withdrawal from hosting the World Climate Conference "suggest that our ability to provide collective responses to major challenges is under threat. But reforming a single multilateral institution will not solve the problem if its member states - and the communities they represent - remain divided along political, social and economic lines," the World Economic Forum chief believes. The divisions among voters in many countries around the world make it increasingly difficult for political leaders to implement reforms, he said. Voters are increasingly polarised, he said. Politicians who try to compromise are often punished at the ballot box.

"Ireland offers a promising model for escaping this predicament," Schwab explains. "For decades, the issue of abortion was political kryptonite for Irish politicians. But then Ireland tried a socio-political experiment fit for our age of division: it convened a Citizens' Assembly to draft an abortion law that a broad base of voters could support. The Irish Citizens' Assembly had randomly selected 99 citizens who were a reflection of society by age, gender, social class, regional distribution, etc. "In this way it achieved a much greater diversity of opinion than you find in the established political system," Schwab explains.

Unity and respect

He also describes further details: "The citizens' assembly followed rules that were meant to promote unity. All participants had the same opportunity to speak and all deliberations were public. From the beginning, participants also committed to respecting each other's points of view and to sit at the same table with those with whom they disagreed. The public followed the Assembly's deliberations closely, creating a unique sense of broad-based political participation. People cared deeply about the issue being discussed, but they also came to appreciate the views of those on the other side of the table or on television. Eventually, the Assembly formulated recommendations, including the legalisation of abortion, which were then put to the public in the form of a referendum. Many of the Citizens' Assembly proposals are now law."

"If we want to overcome political divisions in other parts of the world, we should advocate this Citizens' Assembly model," Schwab suggests. Consultative Citizens' Assemblies - whose main task, he says, is to reach agreement rather than to be re-elected - could bypass political antagonisms and find pragmatic solutions to specific issues. "They cannot replace democratically elected legislatures, but they should complement them when needed," says the economist. He also refers to similar citizens' assemblies in France, Antwerp and Gdansk. "Once our societies are more united on at least some compromises, it will be easier to create momentum to solve international problems," the WEF chairman believes.

Wish for 2020

"So this is my wish for 2020: that we overcome national and local divisions through citizens' assemblies and bring the same stakeholder approach to our international institutions. We must act quickly if we are to solve the great challenges of our time, from climate change and rising inequality to slowing growth and new concentrations of power, all of which threaten the well-being of citizens everywhere," Schwab concludes.