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An Era of Partnerships

28 January 2005

Motherhood and apple pie, how could you be against them, they create more with less, the quintessential social alchemy of the era…hardly a sentence goes by at Davos without someone calling out the need for more collaboration and partnerships. One IBM executive, welcoming people to their late night reception… “technology is the easy part, and will not lie at the heart of changes in the 21st century, what has to be added is people and the way they work together”…IBM’s sale of their PC business to a Chinese competitor well placed in the booming Chinese (and now global) markets moves the Big Blue a further step towards becoming a full blooded consultancy where ‘people count’.

…I am invited to attend a private session hosted by the Swiss Government describing advances in work they are supporting in developing a set of principles and guidelines for private sector involvement in the delivery of public water services…this most contentious of areas has been blighted by the challenges of combining multinational expertise and capital with the imperative of accessible, clean, affordable water…people around the table include the head of the International Institute of Sustainable Development, the Overseas Development Institute, Mary Robinson now running the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, and many others including the CEO of Thames Water and a senior executive from Suez, two of the most active companies in this space…in front of us, a long, very detailed, very Swiss document something half way between a UN Convention and a commercial contract…the language of human rights and accountability sit uneasily alongside that of water pricing, security of assets and a clear distaste for subsidies…the tension is not the authors’ making of course, but the facts on the ground of water scarcity, the immense costs of delivering safe water, and the facts of poverty, particularly in burgeoning cities around the world…

…a demonstration by Greenpeace under a chilly, startling blue sky, bodies litter the road, garbed in skeleton suits, reminding us of the horror of Bhopal and the ridiculous behaviour of Dow in renouncing any responsibility having acquired Union Carbide…a Reuters man approaches me, camera in hand, asking my view of the scene, “if Dow had ignored its corporate lawyers, this demonstration would not be happening”, I respond, “instead the situation in Bhopal would be improving, Dow would have saved tens of million of dollars in management, legal and PR time and fees, and would be reputationally in a far better space…they will pay for their error for years, but never as much as the residents of Bhopal, those dead and those alive”…Dow can still take leadership, stand up and show us that the lawyers have left the room, commit to engagement and remediation, a programme of action long needed and within the company’s grasp if it sees the point and makes the move.

Davos is full to the brim, overflowing with participants moving between bilaterals, sessions, and coincidental revelations and deals…it is a surprisingly quiet affair, the last two years have been fired by Iraq and the UN, terrorism and war…before that we had corporate scandals and the related piece on corporate responsibility writ large as risk management…this year we have the millennium development goals, the Sachs report, cautions about the middle east, and the scary prospect of US leadership with the even more worrying question about its lack…somehow the firing effect of crisis does not seem upon the meeting, despite entreatments by Blair, Clinton and a dozen other global leaders spelling out the poverty equation and pointing at the climatic brick wall that we are rushing towards…strategic perspectives pervade the discussions, targets set for dates where today’s leaders will have long lost their power, the paradox of unaccountability through the very mechanisms that secure the responsibilities of those in power.

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