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29 January 2005

WEF’s Global Governance Initiative produces an annual report on our progress towards achieving the millennium development goals. This year the focus was on businesses’ contribution, and Jeff Sachs, along with the report’s authors, were hosting a meeting on this topic. I went along to hear the stories. First of all, the meeting was attended by more or less 50 people, of which at least two thirds were not businesses (remember that over 60% of Davos participants are from business). Secondly, we heard some great stuff from BC Hydro, Accenture (again) and other companies in the room about what they were doing. One heart rending story that burst upon us was from a disaffected Bloomberg reporter who described the total irrelevance of this agenda in the rump of the business community, particularly the investment community (see AccountAbility’s website to look at our report on ‘mainstreaming responsible investment’, launched and discussed at Davos today). Then Wangari Maathi took the floor, softly noting the lack of Africans at the meeting, and the crucial importance of doing things with people not for people, and offered her inspiring experience to illustrate the point.

I didn’t get a chance to raise my point, as too many hands were raised in front of me. But it did strike me that our drive for innovation in this space was leading us to forget the basics. Neither the GCI report nor the discussion in the room touched upon the matter of taxes. I recalled the recent article about General Motors, which has just declared its global tax liability for the last year of just 3% of income, an amount so tiny that it even astonished the investment community and the company’s peers. Similarly, there was no discussion of the links to bribery, a topic covered extensively at Davos, but somehow unlocked from the discussion of MDG drivers and impediments. Similarly lacking was any discussion of the arms industry, the single most important resource drain and source of insecurity…

…finally, I was bemused that no one talked about the role of the investment community in enabling or, today, preventing business taking MDGs into account. Its kind of weird that Davos has focused on ‘financing for development’ for the last 96 hours, but has almost completely ignored the role of fund managers, analysts, credit rating agencies and, yes indeed, our representatives the pension fund trustees. My session on mainstreaming responsible investment’ was great, digging into the matter of fund manager incentives, marginalized labor representative trustees, ignorant analysts, and any number of conflicts of interest up and down the investment value chain…(I did a digital tape of the session, so maybe I can get it onto the web when I get back to London)…the participants were really engaged, probing to identify the tipping points that could guide interventions in this enriched and profoundly privatised industry…but the session was programmatically unlocked from the core debate about poverty, inequality and environmental insecurity, despite the fact that it is one, and an important one of the drivers of these outcomes…makes one kind of lonely, wondering what it takes to unlock brilliant minds and willing hearts from institutionalised veils of ignorance.

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