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Davos: changing the world from within

Simon Zadek
22 January 2007

Today, the World Economic Forum closed its doors for the last time.

In an event attended by hundreds of business, political and civil-society leaders from around the world, the forum's last president ceremoniously closed and locked the doors of its headquarters overlooking what used to be Lake Geneva. As he did so, he remarked to the assembled world media: "I have prayed and worked for this day for so many years. It is the culmination of not only my dreams, but those of many, many people around the world".

This spectacle was but one of a number of powerful institutions that on this day have yielded themselves to the historic moment. In New York, the United Nations secretary-general was presiding over the very last meeting of a general assembly of sovereign nation-states.

In Nairobi, the United Nations Environment Organisation was experiencing its last moments as a UN division. And in Porte Alegre, the home of the World Social Forum, one could witness a stormy last session, punctuated by ongoing demonstrations over the determination of its collective leadership to take the opportunity for power in the newly emerging institutional arrangements.

Taken together, the will of these organisations to become part of a greater, and very different, whole made this day the most extraordinary since the creation of the League of Nations in 1919 just over a century ago.

But the most amazing spectacle of all unfolded in Ulaan Bator, wedged below the Siberian energy fields, but tilting obligingly towards China. The gigantic screens set around the weatherproofed, glass-domed Sukhbaatar Square beamed pictures of the institutional revolution taking place around the world made Mongolia a truly global centre of gravity, an ironic historic return in the light of the Genghis Khan's great empire some eight centuries ago.

The newly elected president of the Global Council of Alliances reminded us all of how we had arrived at this moment, and the challenges to come: "It has taken a crisis of global proportions to get us to this day, with untold losses and a permanent scarring to the human and indeed planetary condition. But we have survived and arrived here with an agenda for the future. Moreover, we are here, globally, with a way to work together in forging the solutions that are needed for the future, our children and the planet".

Simon Zadek is the chief executive of AccountAbility, the institute of social and ethical accountability. He is the author of The Civil Corporation: The New Economy of Corporate Citizenship, (Earthscan, 2001).

Also by Simon Zadek in openDemocracy:

" From the magic mountain: the World Economic Forum "
(29 January 2004)

" openDavos: Simon Zadek’s blog "
(February 2005)

" Reinventing accountability for the 21st century "
(12 September 2005)

" China’s route to business responsibility " (30 November 2005)

"Accountability: the other climate change" (31 October 2006)

Imagining a new reality

Of course, these events have not come to pass, yet. But the century is young. As the annual spectacle that is the World Economic Forum at Davos (24-28 January 2007) approaches, three trends offer a painful reminder of the fragility of today's governance of the commons for the public good:

▪ as trade negotiators shuttle between Brussels, Delhi, Sao Paolo and Washington, they try frantically to resurrect the dormant-if-not-dead Doha trade round

▪ as Iraq implodes, history may be tolling the emblematic last rites of Atlantic power

▪ as the grotesque charade of climate-change "talks" staggers onward, it may yet provide the most important, dark-horse, driver of institutional decay and rebirth.

There is no doubt of the need for radical changes in our self-governance on planet earth. Kofi Annan's lack of progress in reforming the United Nations while he was UN secretary-general (1997-2006) will not be bettered by his successor without an unlikely, radical wielding of the knife. The World Social Forum - as Patricia Daniel points out in her scene-setting piece for openDemocracy covering the parallel Nairobi event (20-25 January 2007) - embodies deep schisms behind its ebullient and energetic public face. There is little doubt too about the ill-health of the tattered institutional remnants of the 20th-century multilateral compact, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation, just to name a few.

Meanwhile, across the newer generation of trans-border institutions - from trans-border institutions like Nepad and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Africa, through the maze of economic and political bodies being road-tested across Asia, to trans-regional initiatives such as the newly-minted alliance between China and Africa - the signs of dysfunction are already apparent. And the motley assortment of Chávez-led leaders and countries, from Belarus to Bolivia, offers even fewer grounds for hope.

Davos provides us with a moment to reflect on how to advance changes in global governance. Neither cynicism nor naïve optimism serve us well in this task. Sure, business is done, politics is redone and much food and drink is unnecessarily consumed. But whether or not it fits your worldview, many Davos participants are there to understand how to make the world a better place.

It may be spectacle and there is much grandstanding, but there is also seriousness and reflection and learning. The paradox of course, is that the assembled, many of the world's most powerful people, run institutions that are profoundly part of the problem:

  • Bill Gates, after all, will make his mark on global affairs well away from the Microsoft that brought him money and power
  • Warren Buffett, likewise, envisages his personal contribution to bettering the world as leveraging their business networks and expertise and resources, but not being about the businesses that got him there in the first place
  • Bill Clinton has become a world leader, but only after he moved on from being the most powerful person on the planet.

Davos provides us with a modern Platonic vision, the most powerful citizens in dialogue about what is to be done. But more than anything, it demonstrates that the institutions we work within too often render these upstanding people helpless, despite themselves. It would be absurd, indeed irresponsible, to believe that their failure to act resulted from personality defects, some mean-spiritedness or unusual greed. The problem is far more serious: it is that these people are far too accountable for their actions!

From cynicism to realism

Yup, you read it here first: the world's problems are rooted in the fact that there is too much accountability. Or to be more precise, there is too much of the wrong kind.

We are so used to saying that "our political and business, and yes increasingly even our civil-society leaders, are in the main profoundly unaccountable". We cite, and can all recite a litany of cases - from George W. Bush and Tony Blair going to war in Iraq, to the case of the vanishing $400 billion paid for Nigerian oil, to exploding oil refineries, to abandoned criminal investigations of arms dealers and failed trade negotiations.

But trade talks will fail because of politicians' accountability to key constituencies, such as French farmers; oil refineries explode too often because of business leaders' accountability to investors obsessed with short-term returns, and Bush and Blair have shown themselves passionately accountable to, amongst others, their respective gods. We are blighted, truth be told, by too much accountability of the wrong kind.

The greatest challenge of the 21st century - and one that must be met early on - is to create a new generation of governing institutions that do not turn our leaders into very accountable parts of the problem.

I must confess to being unconvinced by the vision of a Global Council of Alliances, even one located underneath a weatherproof dome in Ulaan Bator. But I am equally convinced that incremental innovations to today's institutions are a dangerous distraction.

The key to change on the scale needed is the right people - those who can break away from the shackles of the prevailing forms of accountability, and who can imagine for and with us what it would mean to lead businesses, governments and civil-society organisations (or more probably hybrids of all three) in addressing the challenges of our time. Technology and spiritual enlightenment will help us, certainly. But the gold-seam of societal change lies in deep-rooted shifts in the accountability of our most powerful institutions; there too lies the deposit on which their leaders must be held to account.

Thus, leadership and accountability will be my focus during my week at Davos in 2007 (which includes, as in 20042005, and 2006, a diary/blog from the event on openDemocracy).

We have to look for signs of leaders who are willing and able, productively, to be unaccountable within the traditional terms set out by the institutions they run, who will challenge and undermine the wrong kinds of accountability, and offer alternatives that will almost certainly upset the carefully organised apple-carts of prevailing interests. We need leaders who are prepared to bite the hands that feed them - but in smart ways that will not result in their being immediately thrown out of the temple.

Maybe some of these leaders will be at Davos - looking more or less like everyone else, but plotting very different ways of pioneering change, and very different ways of being accountable for their actions and impacts. Watch this space.

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