Modern societies need better leadership. Around the world, people are clamouring for a more effective, open and honest management of public affairs.  

As change accelerates, the need to coordinate human efforts grows steadily more pressing. “The world’s quest for dignity, peace, prosperity, justice, sustainability and an end to poverty has reached an unprecedented moment of urgency”, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said last year.

In some ways, humankind is making valuable progress. In this the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set in 2000, to be met by 2015, are a useful standard: there has been solid progress on many of them, even nominal success on gender parity in primary education, escape from extreme poverty and access to clean water.

But most of the MDGs will not be met, despite 15 years of unprecedented international attention and effort. Planning for the post-2015 phase is under way; the United Nations says the ultimate goal is still to “eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development”.

Meanwhile, however, other problems – from urbanization to data protection – press in, sometimes exacerbating the old ones.

Climate change remains intractable, and is perhaps the key challenge to global governance.

Economic growth remains essential but, we now see, must be sustainable. The global financial system has been bandaged but not cured since the crisis of 2008-2009. Economic growth remains slow almost everywhere; even is some countries from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), youth unemployment surpasses 40%.

And developments in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring reveal the problems that can arise when modes of governing fall far short of popular expectations.

Trust in leadership – national, international and corporate – must be rebuilt.

International organizations, from the United Nations Security Council on down, are too often paralyzed by ideological disputes, competing national interests or simple inefficiency. In country after country, meanwhile, honest politicians have no incentive to look beyond the electoral horizon, while others find that they can with impunity misuse office for personal gain.

Business is seen as avaricious and irresponsible. Corruption corrodes social solidarity. Elections are often rigged. Social safety nets fray or were never woven. Ever-increasing pay rates for chief executives and bankers’ bonuses create discontent and damage social bonds. In many countries, self-serving elites are grasping more and more of the national wealth, fuelling unrest and social tensions in rich and poor places alike.

This last point illustrates that a key element in rebuilding confidence will be greater equality. Access to work and economic opportunity for all kinds of people – especially for women and the young, now often the most poorly served – is vital to social and political stability.

Demands for the rule of law and for simple human dignity are widely heard today, but often denied. Corporate social responsibility has gained more ground as a marketing concept than as an intrinsic norm. Urbanization is building potent centres of innovation but threatens us with ever-denser pools of poverty.

To be sure, the picture is not all bleak. Recent years have seen important successes, not only on certain MDGs but also in programmes such as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, a subsidy paid directly to mothers who keep their children in school and send them for medical check-ups. This well-designed policy has lifted millions of families out of poverty and is creating a generation of more-employable young people. And in India, and elsewhere, anti-corruption campaigners are finding electoral success.

Still, public trust in national institutions, corporate probity and political parties has dwindled in many countries in recent years. In January 2013, a leading global “trust barometer” found that only 16% of people had “a great deal” of trust in government, and only 17% avowed the same for business. It is hard to believe that the latest numbers, due this month, will be much better.

All in all, digital communication and rising expectations are together generating a worldwide chorus of demands for quick, effective action on issues our grandparents never dreamed of. Demographic and social conditions vary widely from one country and society to the next, but the ancient demands for jobs and justice are now merely the first two items on a growing list of public expectations.

This problem contains the seeds of its own solution. Leadership is not just from the top down any more.

Participants in various workshops found, and said in different ways, that better peer-to-peer communication, and other factors that spur higher expectations, have also started to enable “grass-roots” or “leaderless” initiatives with tremendous potential to generate or catalyse unorthodox new solutions.

Many of the examples cited in discussions at the World Economic Forum’s recent Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi originated in the private sector or civil-society groups and philanthropic foundations. But the concept of partnership arose frequently: many of the most effective efforts have been supported by partnerships involving some combination of government, business, individuals, workers’ groups and NGOs. Efficient skills-training and apprenticeship programmes, for example, may involve city officials, schools, unions and employers. (Several Forum Global Shapers argued that incentives to improve labour markets can and should start with individuals.)

Examples bubbled out of numerous workshop sessions: M-Pesa mobile-phone banking; smartphone apps of practical value to, for example, fishermen; “shared economy” ventures; diverse initiatives in green and alternative energy; microfinance; massive open online courses; the work of “whistle-blowers” and anti-corruption activists; measures to integrate the informal economy into the mainstream (as in São Paulo, where waste-pickers were helped to organize); online skills training projects; women’s self-help groups; and more.

Some group members said municipal administrations, close to problems and oriented towards practical matters, are an untapped reservoir of energy to tackle climate change. There is already an urban Climate Change Leadership Group, called C40; why not a comparable group of mayors sharing best practices and lobbying together on efficient labour markets?

The world’s revolution of rising expectations can, in short, be well-served by the enormous amount of positive energy moving the human family towards longer, more rewarding lives. But ingenious solutions can be applied best where there is genuine cooperation among stakeholders. Building that cooperation, orchestrating the world’s efforts, is the challenge for Davos participants, and all the world’s leaders.

Meeting Society’s new Expectations is one of four thematic pillars of the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014 in Davos. This is a summary of discussions from experts in the World Economic Forum’s Network of Global Agenda Councils, which is led by Martina Gmür.

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