Warming Up Or Scaling Down ?

25 January 2006

Warming Up Or Scaling Down ?

September is an anxious time for would-be invitees to Davos, particularly those, like me, whose participation depends on the Forum’s generosity in both spirit and pocket. But as the autumn leaves began to fall around me, my embossed invitation letter popped into my in-tray and with some relief I made suitable etchings in my diary, checked out EasyJet flights, and sent my smart casual outfits to the cleaners. So let me start by thanking the Forum for inviting me once again to the Davos meeting. As I have often said in my annual oD blogs and elsewhere, it is a meeting of extraordinary people and it is undoubtedly a privilege to listen to and debate with them the issues of the day.

And so to business. And on that topic, one of the facts of Davos even before it started became clear from the preliminary programme: that ‘doing business’ is back on the agenda. You may recall that last year, in Digby Jones as-ever elegant and nuanced words, the ‘crazies took over the madhouse’. The topics of climate change and poverty in Africa dominated the agenda, and a veritable queue of global leaders from Clinton to Brown (and Blair) to Gates aligned our collective thinking to the most profound social and environmental problems of the day.

Well, it seems that business may have struck back, quietly reminding the Forum of its members’ primary interests, the business of business. So this year, the Annual Meeting’s topic is ‘creativity’, which seems a fair enough cross-cutting lens developed by Ged Davies and his team, one of the Forum’s Managing Directors and previously in Shell’s Scenarios Unit. Certainly, poverty and climate change are on the agenda, but somehow in subdued forms, often interwoven into global risk analysis, product development and business strategy.

Wednesday morning, 09.00, and I seat myself in one of the first open sessions, entitled ‘Tough Choices 2005 – Did We Make a Difference in 2005’. “the glass is certainly not full”, opens the moderator, “but it is half empty or half full”, he frames the debate. Simon Maxwell, Director of the ODI kicks off, “2005 was quite a good year, British politicians worked hard to double the aid commitment at Gleneagles, we are moving from a $60 billion to a $100 billion industry in two years. The worst moment was Mandelson’s move to restrict textiles imports from China. 2005 highlighted the power of ideas, the work of Sachs, and the Commission on Africa being cases in point”.

One of Blair’s closest advisors wades in. “we stretched the rubber band as far as we could, but what we do going forward will be just as important. You make big steps forward, and then try to turn commitments into action, that is how change happens. Engaging the public last year emboldens politicians like Blair and Brown, and we see public campaigns that will be key in determining the extent of real change. 100% multilateral debt cancellation was amazing, especially for Nigeria, the commitment for universal treatment for HIV/AIDS was a huge step forward. The bad bit was clearly trade, and it is not clear how to push this forward effectively. The ugly bit was the terrorist attacks in London and elsewhere”.

“Bringing emission trading into being in Europe was a big step forward, but this will not solve climate change”, enters the Swedish business speaker on the panel. “But the growth in awareness of climate change was critically important. The glass is half full, certainly”. A leading Middle East banker addresses himself to the region’s evolution. “On a scale of zero to ten, I will go for minus two”, he opens. “Bush promised a State of Palestine by 2005, but this did not happen, we have to make progress on this. Iraq is key, there have been elections, we all want a reduction in violence (lets not call this ‘insurgents’). But we have a clear development of non-secular politics emerging in Iraq, which will cause difficulties going forward. And then is Iran, and we must learn from Iraq that we must take a different route”.

“Trade is too important to leave to trade ministers”, frames one of the speakers, mirroring comments from Blair’s office, “these issues do not join up properly, we have to look at the governance dimensions of the issues we are debating. “Yes, how do we stitch this all together”, asks the moderator. Larry Elliot from the Guardian pitches in, “disparities in national and global governance frame decisions and deals on aid, trade and climate change…the real issue is how we bring national and global interests into harmony”.

A reasonable start: the real issues shimmer through the conversation, informing the room’s politicians, thought leaders, moderate activists and experts, who combine with business leaders to drive high-level, informed, nuanced passion – the very stuff of Davos. No one says, ‘my people are more important than your people’, or ‘my businesses profits will take priority over advancing green products or production processes’. Somehow, the most powerful people are in the room, but the people who will not make the morally right deals are talked about as somehow ‘absent’. As I said, the very stuff of Davos, a measured, noble schizophrenia - in fact, just the feeling that anyone with the resources and time to access and read this blog must recognise within their own lives and actions.

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