Sunday, January 22, 2006

World Economic Forum (Davos) - revisited

Next week, once again, the elites of the exclusive club called the World Economic Forum will meet in Davos for a week or so. It has a membership of 1007 corporate organisations, and while the total attendance in this year's forum will be around 2500, the others - including the head of states, academics, social entrepreneurs, etc. - are only "invitees".

Two years back (WEF, Jan 21-25, 2004), Simon Zadek, chief executive of the NGO AccountAbility had penned down a day-to-day account of his experiences of attending this annual carnival of global leaders.

His descrption of his own role ("And me: how do I fit into this picture? Well, I am one of the Shakespearean “fools”, invited to amuse, surprise and, within moderation, attack, the gathered throng: an insider-outsider with attitude - yet reasonable manners...") resonates with John Ralston Saul's description of WEF:

"Just as classic play with kings, virgins, love and betrayalmust have their fools, so Globalisation had Davos."

Some excerpts from Zadek's diary/blog on OpenDemocracy site:

As I edge towards the world’s most elite event, the annual World Economic Forum in Davos , I am in low spirits.

...Truth be told, the cause of my depression is the memory of my time at Davos last year listening to the innermost thoughts of the world’s most powerful business people and politicians.

No insult is intended to my conference colleagues. Some of the characters at Davos are amazing; they have achieved incredible things on the back of innovation, energy and vision. The rest? Well, they are in the main average, god-fearing family types who got where they are by being in the right place with the right face - or else by being media- and market-friendly. Almost none of them have horns.

Wandering off-campus, beyond the ring of steel and firepower surrounding Davos, I joined the alternative People’s Summit in time to hear some of its speakers, as well as debate between feisty social activists and organisations. I confess that it felt much like a throwback to the very early days of The Other Economic Summit (TOES ), the antecedent of many of today’s alternative events. Good spirits, centred ethics, and vibrant energy, combined with testimonies from grassroots activists and the more orderly policy-wonkers.

The fact of the World Social Forum had somewhat taken the edge from this dissident event, but in other ways made its local aspects all the more enjoyable...

...But in the end, my real downer from last year was to do with substance. Attending several sessions on terrorism and security, it quickly became clear that the days of the “liberal mind” were seen as being numbered. “We are here to help You, since You cannot cope with the emerging situation” was the line of the day. Fifty years of liberal democracy had neutralised the citizenry’s ability to think, it seemed...

...My session was entitled, believe it or not, “Do grassroots organisations need to be ring-fenced?” I had hoped that the American Enterprise Institute might show, and spice up the evening with a gentle rant about how NGOs were stripping us all of our basic right to commercialise. But it was not to be. We were a very moderate crowd... We joined in bemoaning the civil accountability gap, and found common cause in wanting to make sure that NGOs did the right thing for the right reasons, before they were made to do it for the wrong ones....

From another session:

....Solutions come thick and thin, but all look remarkably similar – get competitive and enter the global markets. But the political challenge does eventually hit the table, as an instant participant voting system signals that political reform is the heart of the issue. After all, challenges one questioner from the floor, what about democratic reform and the gender rights deficit? The suited, all-male panel is unanimous and unambiguous in stating its commitment to political reform....

....Lunch is a private event about water, or more specifically the conditions under which privatisation of water management can and should proceed across the world. A code has been drafted under the auspices of the World Economic Forum, and a distinguished group has been assembled to comment.

‘Seems somewhat market-focused’, I suggest politely, pointing to the code’s focus on a decent financial return to investment, and an explicit rejection of subsidies linked to a statement that ‘consumers need to understand the real cost of water’.

‘What about a rights-based approach’, I proffer as an innocent alternative, pointing out how this can be consistent with reasonable economic returns. The cat is out of the bag....

...we run into some characters who have come from an NGO-WEF advisory group where the hot topic has been WEF’s decision not to invite Oxfam to Davos this year. ‘A matter of rotation’, claims WEF, pointing to the bulging sessions and the town’s over-patronised, over-priced hotels. ‘A political decision’, retort some, with Oxfam excluded ‘because of their hard-arse anti-corporate campaigning tactics’.

‘What is to be done?’, I inquire casually, squinting out... at the small group of assembled NGO-ites. A bit of this and a bit of that, I eventually gather, from the assorted responses - but essentially not much at all. Civil solidarity is a solitary beast. I wonder who will be excluded next year?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, we are told. I suspect that Groucho Marx might have responded that if only the opposite were equally true, that the road to heaven was paved with bad intentions, the world would be a far better place.

‘Does corporate responsibility pay?’ is the title of a session that I am opening today. ‘Maybe, sometimes, but not enough to make a real difference’, I begin - before edging my way cautiously from a celebration of leadership of progressive companies towards the need for public policy interventions to ensure that markets reward business for doing good.

An editor from the Economist wades in, reiterating the publication's long-standing editorial position that corporate responsibility is either a misnomer for good management; a case of mistaken identity; or rank irresponsibility on the part of managers - essentially vanity-spend of someone else’s money.

Curiously, business leaders at the session were at one in resisting what one alluded to dismissively as ‘old-style, classical economics’. There was a time when the Economist led the march from the right. Today, it is a weird (although still highly profitable) anachronism, campaigning for a style of business that makes neither money nor sense.

The bottom line

What did I do at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year? After spending a week with the world’s most powerful people... what is so astonishing about Davos is that it brought together the best brains and hearts of the world’s business, political and spiritual leaders, covered every conceivable topic under the sun - and yet managed to avoid serious, open debate about what is really happening in the world.

There was no real debate about how today’s American Dream has established an essentially colonial and destructive attitude towards the rest of us; no real debate about the extraordinary loss of civil rights that comes with this new discipline; and no real debate about the utterly cynical behaviour of many business leaders towards their shareholders, let alone workers and communities.

There was, moreover, no real debate about how our leaders show neither remorse nor shame as they defy their citizens and the laws of the land in taking for themselves, and leading their countries (against the clearly-voiced interests of their citizens) to war against others, and ultimately against themselves.

...There is only one big difference between last year’s and this year’s Davos. In 2003, people were so shocked with world events that they couldn’t help but show their concerns, their anger towards the US, and their fury towards the corruption within their midst. A year later, the facial muscles and itchy voice-boxes are back under control. The assembled are largely mute, polite, accepting. Even edgy questions are ritualised in how they are asked, and are assured of mildly irrelevant responses. Corridor conversations illuminate the fact that this silence is not born out of lack of information, thoughtfulness, or ethics. But these more noble traits are swept tidily behind masks of pragmatism. Worse still, they are submerged by people’s passivity towards what they know is morally unacceptable and ultimately destructive behaviour from within their ranks...

...But civil society, in truth, remains largely absent from the conversation in Davos. NGOs are at the table, but seem to have been put into specialised roles, dealing the ‘minor keys’ that do make a difference but in no way challenge the underlying game-plan...

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