The Great Reset – more than a conspiracy theory?

When World Economic Forum founder and current Executive Chairman, Klaus Schwab, and the British Prince of Wales jointly announced “The Great Reset” as the theme of a “unique twin summit to be held in Davos in January 2021”, it gave rise to a profusion of outlandish conspiracy theories. However, a closer analysis of the WEF plans revealed genuine cause for deep concern as is shown in a recent publication “The Great Takeover: Mapping Multistakeholderism in Global Governance” by the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism[1].

The People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism (PWGM) research revealed a “clear strategy of creating a brand new parallel set of institutions, where the corporations sit with voice and vote to decide on key areas and issues of global policies that impact the planet and, most importantly, its people”. Their analysis shows how the shift from multilateralism to multistakeholderism unfolded and the key role played by the WEF as instigator and driver in the process.

What is multistakeholderism?

In the aftermath of World War II, a multilateral system as the basis for global governance was established with the UN at the centre. The system has been widely criticized as being ineffective, too bureaucratic and no longer equipped to deal with the problems of the 21st century. Civil society has long been calling for it to be reformed, but for all its failings, UN decisions are taken by elected state leaders.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) on the other hand has been proposing a very different vision for global governance based on the concept of multistakeholder governance, where global governance would no longer be based on a system where member states are – at least officially – equal, but on combinations of different actors (multistakeholder initiatives); governments would no longer be the only ones to take policy decisions but would be just one of several stakeholders, including the private sector and civil society. However, because of their power and financial clout, corporations would often be the main stakeholders, while the role of governments and civil society would be secondary.

The term “multistakeholderism” in this context is problematic. The PWGM study suggests that it “tries to conceal the immense differences in interests, role, power and legitimacy that exist among the various actors as if they were equal stakeholders. In particular, no distinction is made between rights holders, for example communities affected by environmental destruction that affects their lives, private corporations, which are accountable only to their shareholders, and governments, who have an obligation to act in the public interest. [2]

Copyright: ESCR Net. Cartoon reproduced with permission of ESCR-Net from as series of cartoons « Power for the 99% to Stop Corporate Capture » published by ESCR-Net in 2021. ESCR-Net is an international network working to secure economic and social justice through human rights. Source:


How did it develop?

The concept of multistakeholderism as a management model has been advocated by Klaus Schwab since the Forum’s founding in 1971. He argued for a transformation from shareholder capitalism to stakeholder capitalism, in which private corporations would no longer focus solely on serving shareholders but also become “trustees of society”. Schwab has constantly reiterated the idea since then, most recently in the 2021 publication Stakeholder Capitalism Making the Case for a Global Economy that Works for Progress, People and Planet in which he writes: “We can’t continue with an economic system driven by selfish values, such as short-term profit maximization, the avoidance of tax and regulation, or the externalizing of environmental harm.”[3]

The second half of the 20th century saw a dramatic rise in the power and influence of transnational corporations (TNCs) – some of them economically more powerful than individual states -, which allowed them to increasingly influence policy at national and global level. The response of governments to this development tended to be to cooperate with the private sector rather than rein in their power, introducing voluntary standards and corporate social responsibility rather than imposing binding regulations, as seen in the UN Global Compact of 2000, which promoted “responsible corporate citizenship” but with no enforcement provisions.

2009 saw a further development in corporate power, when, in the aftermath of the financial crisis concerns about the stability of globalization and the failure of the UN bodies to manage the crisis, the WEF presented its “Global Redesign Initiative”. This proposed a system of “multistakeholder global governance” in which the decisions of governments could be made secondary to multistakeholder-led initiations, with corporations playing a defining role. Harris Gleckman of the Center for Governance and Sustainability at the University of Massachusetts Boston, who collaborated on the PWGM study, wrote at the time « The World Economic Forum’s Global Redesign Initiative is perhaps the best reflection of how corporations and other elites envision the future of governance. It calls for marginalising intergovernmental decision-making with a system of multi-stakeholder governance, but what does this mean for democracy, accountability and the rule of law?”[4]

Taking private sector influence in global governance to the next level

Ten years later, in June 2019, the UN Secretary General and the WEF signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement to “deepen institutional engagement and jointly accelerate the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” It includes six areas for collaboration, including financing the SDGs, climate change, health, digital cooperation, gender equality and empowerment of women and education and skills. As Harris Gleckman put it, the agreement formalized the WEF’s 2009 Global Redesign Initiative, giving a defining role for corporations in global governance[5] and gave the private sector privileged space within the UN.

The above overview shows that the ‘Great Reset’ of 2020 is in fact the latest stage in the WEF’s push for a corporate takeover of the global institutions that take critical decisions on the governance of global common goods. The UN Secretary General’s September 2021 report “Our Common Agenda”, marking the 75th anniversary of the UN, indicates clearly that for him that the partnership with the private sector is the only way out of the multiple crises the world faces and is intended to continue to play a key role.

What is wrong with multistakeholderism anyway?

Multistakeholderism can in the right circumstances be a constructive approach. However, as the PWGM study shows, for this to be the case each stakeholder would have to have “sufficient power to at least partially subvert the effectiveness of an outcome contrary to its interests and be prepared to engage in a learning process rather than negotiating on fixed positions.” [6] But despite their posturing as inclusive decision-making bodies that bring everyone to the table, the multistakeholder initiatives promoted by the WEF are widely criticized for their lack of accountability and for advocating solutions that primarily favour the interests of the private sector, with the most powerful actors carrying the most weight.

The PWGM study shows how multistakeholderism is impacting key areas such as health, education, environmental governance, global Internet governance and food and agriculture governance. The failed COVAX initiative, described in this edition of the brennpunkt in an article by Alena Ivanova of Global Justice Now, is a striking example. It reveals how a multistakeholder group of which COVAX is a part, thwarted the development of a programme proposed by the WHO, which would have facilitated the sharing of COVID-19 treatments and technology by pharmaceutical companies, albeit on a voluntary basis.

The multistakeholder takeover of the UN Food Systems Summit – a threat to multilateral institutions

The September 2021 UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is a further example of the increasing corporate grip over the UN system and erosion of multilateralism. Firstly, the decision to organise the self-styled “People’s Summit” was taken by the Office of the UN Secretary General (UNSG), shortly after the signing of the UN-WEF Strategic Partnership in 2019, and not, as is normally the case with UN summits, by the UN institutions. Furthermore, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), considered to be the most democratic space for the development of international food policies, was by-passed with parallel structures being set up to organise the summit.

The structure, agenda and recruitment of key actors were all strongly influenced by corporate-dominated multistakeholder platforms with the result that the disproportionate power of agribusiness in the food system as constituting a key problem was not addressed, while those suffering the impacts of their activities, including marginalised food producers and rights defenders, were poorly represented.

Finally, the UNSG’s announcement of plans to set up new structures for the UNFSS follow up process fuelled concern that the UNFSS would lead to further undermining of the multilateral institutions. The proposed “coordination hub”, in which corporations, CSOs and “experts” would participate, had neither been requested nor approved by the UN Member States and CSOs warned that “attempts by the Summit to change the global food governance architecture are bypassing Member States and the CFS. If they support such suggestions, the UN Secretary General as well as the heads of the Rome-based agencies, are clearly acting outside their mandates.[7]

Time for a Democratic Reset

The members of the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism and many other CSOs have been mobilising against the progressive rise of corporate power and interference in policy making in areas that affect us all for decades. In April 2021, in a reaction to the WEF’s “Great Reset” and the dramatic increase in multistakeholder initiatives, several of them published an open letter calling on states, non-governmental actors and civil society to halt the trend and for a “Democratic Reset”. For PWGM “the struggle for effective, democratic institutions at the local, national, and international levels is today one of our biggest challenges. We cannot allow decisions over every aspect of our lives to be controlled by the interests of private profit, rather than the public good.”[8]

This will surely be one of the central challenges for the work of civil society for many years to come. The work done by the PWGM is an excellent basis for all those taking on this challenge.



[1] The following social movements, networks and organizations are members of the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism: Corporate Accountability (CA), FIAN International, Focus on the Global South, Friends of the Earth International (FOEI), Geneva Global Health Hub, Global Campaign for Education, IT for Change, People’s Health Movement, Public Services International (PSI), Society for International Development (SID), Transnational Institute (TNI).

[2] The Great Takeover : Mapping of Multistakeholderism in Global Governance, published by the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism, Amsterdam 2021, ISBN – 9789070563844




[6] The Great Takeover : Mapping of Multistakeholderism in Global Governance, published by the People’s Working Group on Multistakeholderism, Amsterdam 2021, ISBN – 9789070563844



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