The World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Middle East and North Africa took place at the Dead Sea in Amman, Jordan last weekend. Those invited were some of the region’s wealthiest businessmen and influential politicians. The halls were packed with important people as well as people who believe themselves to be important. For every participant in attendance, there are hundreds (and in some cases thousands) of people who are directly impacted by their decisions on a daily basis.
As with most WEF’s, the goal was networking. The conference provides a space where people of influence can meet, discuss, and profit from company that views the world similarly. Although there are several information panels going on at any given moment, the’ networking area’ is never empty. At the panels, very little is said that people have not already heard. It is well known that the most interesting conversations take place behind closed doors, like the negotiations between Mahmoud Abbas, John Kerry, King Abdullah II and Shimon Peres, the most visible result of which so far seems to be an awkward, premature photograph.
The organizers of the conference are realistic. Their job is to round up the leaders of the region and bring them together for the elite version of a circle jerk. WEF makes no moral judgments on its participants - although it claims to. Bankers sit next to journalists, Oil Sheikhs next to educators, and CEOs next to princesses. Although the WEF claims to be “committed to improving the state of the world”, the organization seems content to open its doors to the likes of people who have objectively made it worse. Some years the leaders of the Arab world are better than others. When they aren’t? WEF can cope with that too.
One of the most glaring issues at WEF was that of representation. Time and time again, panels went into discussions about groups of people who were not present to voice their concerns. A panel on employment spent a good half hour discussing the gender employment gap in the Middle East without one Arab woman there. One panel called “Safeguarding Syria” had not a single Syrian speaker. “The youth bulge” was an oft-repeated buzzword, yet the average age of panelists (by my estimation) was 67. Males dominated speaking time, panels, and attendance statistics.
In the wake of the Arab Spring, the WEF featured an abundance of pro-regime voices. At times, it almost seemed like a refuge for the 1% of the region where they could congratulate themselves without facing reality, criticism, or difficult questions. My intention is not to demonize the rich; there are some good, well-intentioned people at WEF. Key word: some.
Both the King and Queen of Jordan gave eloquent, articulate speeches where they said all the right things. I would like to congratulate Queen Rania’s speechwriter, who is a brilliant human being. Her speech was inventive, realistic, and inspirational. It even identified the elephant in the room - that her speech from two years ago is similar to her speech this year to the point of being interchangeable - and contained the phrase “nothing has changed”, while managing to deflect any sort of blame. This handsome, charming couple is in their home patch at the WEF, and it is natural that they should come off as Prom King and Queen. After all, WEF is one of the monarchs’ pet projects.
Min Zhu, the Deputy Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, was not even talking about WEF when he best summarized what the conference strives to do; “to prevent macro instability”. Not macro human rights violations. Not macro wealth disparity. Macro (economic) instability. This is the WEF mindset in a nutshell.
And I think it is dangerous. When one looks at any situation as an aggregation of numbers and statistics, it is exceedingly difficult to empathize with those numbers. If a CEO does not know the name of every employee in his or her company, the company is too big. There inevitably comes a time - and the world is experiencing one of those times - when a company, community, or country is asked to make a sacrifice. It is human nature to look out for the people who we know and love, but one cannot love and look out for numbers.
When a corporation is asked to sacrifice, those who suffer are the ones at the bottom of the chain; those nameless individuals with lives and families and no way of holding the person accountable that forced them to this point. Instead, entire companies should have to come together, explore the situation at hand, and hold whoever is responsible accountable for their actions. If no one is to blame, then a community consensually distributes its burden on the members who can best handle it at that time. This model is not unheard of: it happens in the most successful of extended families and religious communities every day. It is the core of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “beloved community”.
An obvious question remains; what about the macro? Let’s be clear, the macro should not be the primary force of influence on people’s lives. Globalization as we know it was born from the exploitation of natural resources and white supremacy. The legacy of colonialism is globalization. In order to de-colonize our societies, our economies, and our communities, we must de-globalize. This proposal is not unheard of; anti-colonial thinkers and politicians like Mahatma Gandhi made these proposals long ago when he suggested that humans are best organized in small compounds he called “Swadeshi”.
De-globalization is not likely in the near future, and the arc of history is long. For now, WEF would do well to consider inclusion as an option. Until it does, it will remain as out-of-touch as it has been to date.