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Why I'm going to Davos

About the author
John Elkington is founder and chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility. He blogs at www.johnelkington.com.

Summits aren’t exactly my bag. Over the past three decades, in a field peculiarly rich with summitry, I have carefully and consistently avoided being sucked into what I saw as potential black holes – and have ignored the roads to Stockholm, Rio and, most recently, Johannesburg. To be fair, colleagues have gone and no one here at my organisation, SustainAbility, questions the urgency of the issues debated or the importance of some of the initiatives negotiated and launched. But political jamborees of this sort set my teeth on edge, for all sorts of reasons. So why, given this declared allergy, have I started turning up for the annual events of the Switzerland-based World Economic Forum (WEF)?

What’s the game plan? And what hope is there of anything significant coming out of all that Davos huffing and puffing? Before focusing in on the 2003 event, a few words on the first WEF event I attended. From 31 January to 4 February 2002, I took part in the WEF as a Faculty member, helping to develop and serve parts of the menu. Despite my long-standing aversion to summits, this one seemed to come at a particularly critical time – and, as it happens, not long after we had set up a SustainAbility office in New York. That said, to be honest, this was also the first time I had been invited to a WEF event.

In the wake of the 9/11 watershed, this ‘Davos in New York’ summit saw the global élite struggling to understand and respond to a new agenda fuelled by concerns about terrorism, militant Islam, various forms of anti-globalisation, recession and the collapse of US energy giant Enron. The process was significantly more transparent than in previous years, with considerably greater ‘civil society’ participation. The demonstrators outside kept up a constant drumbeat of protest, but this year – at least on my count – there were often more critics inside than outside.

WEF is a Geneva-based not-for-profit foundation supported by the world’s 1,000 foremost international companies. The basic mission is to ‘improve the state of the world’. Founded by Professor Klaus Schwab in 1971, WEF aims to be non-partisan. That said, its annual and regional events through the 1990s were notable for their enthusiasm for globalisation in general – and the ‘New Economy’ in particular.

So what was the agenda in 2002? With some 2,500 participants, there were hundreds of different agendas. But given the events of 11 September 2001 and their aftermath, it’s not surprising that the overall theme of the event was ‘Leadership in Fragile Times: A Vision for a Shared Future’. The world, said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, had entered the new millennium ‘through a gate of fire, such as none us ever wished to see.’

‘The big issue was the growing frustration and anger born of poverty.’

Whether or not the assembled Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) liked it – and most didn’t – the big issue was the growing frustration and anger born of poverty, and the urgent need to bridge the yawning wealth gap. Citing the shocking fact that a billion people in the developing world live on less than a dollar a day, Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers warned that ‘we’re leaving a lot of people behind.’

WEF was trying to open its doors to a wider world. As The Wall Street Journal put it: ‘The dissent against American corporate leadership has moved indoors. It could be heard at sessions like the one titled “Understanding the Global Anger”, or the workshop called “Responding to Anti-Globalisation: The New Role of Business”.’ I was the facilitator of the second of those sessions, the one on anti-globalisation. And what struck me most about the whole WEF event was the way that the language of corporate social responsibility, sustainable development and the triple bottom line has percolated up into the upper reaches of the global élite.

For much of the event, you could hear distant drumbeats and chanting, which helped keep the political pot simmering. Some fairly significant protests took place, with very little violence. One reason for that was the intense security, but another was probably a calculation on the part of the protestors that violence wouldn’t play well in the wake of the events of 11 September. And an even more powerful counter-blast came from the World Social Forum (WSF) in Porto Alegre, Brazil. As one of the WSF organisers put it: ‘Reports of the demise of the global social justice movement have been greatly exaggerated.’ In the anti-globalisation session I facilitated in New York, one recommendation was that growing efforts be made to bring together the WEF and WSF in future. It won’t be easy, but it’s worth aiming for.

This year, for the first time, SustainAbility will be taking part both in Davos and Porto Alegre. One of the Davos sessions I will be involved in, again as facilitator, will be on the theme: ‘When Markets Fail, Who Responds?’ But I am also very keen to get to a whole raft of other sessions, including one on ‘The Future of the Anti-Globalisation Movement’. One of the panellists here will be Mary Kaldor, programme director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics (LSE). Interestingly, as Kaldor and her colleagues point out in their 2001 report Global Civil Society, there is nothing particularly new about summit meetings – nor about parallel summits such as the WSF. As long ago as 1899, they note, the Hague Peace Conference was shadowed by parallel salons for diplomats to meet concerned citizens.

‘There is nothing particularly new about summit meetings – nor about parallel summits such as the World Social Forum. As long ago as 1899 the Hague Peace Conference was shadowed by parallel salons for diplomats to meet concerned citizens.’

The WSF is an example of an emerging trend, highlighted by the World Bank’s Jean-François Rischard in his book High Noon: 20 Global Problems, 20 Years to Solve Them. The basic idea is that the emerging institutions of global governance, including WEF, will need to be held in tension by parallel institutions and networks representing civil society (see the openDemocracy interview with Rischard). WEF and WSF meetings may converge in some areas over the next year or two, but the chances are that the chasm between the proponents and opponents of globalisation will remain large, but not unbridgeable. Much, of course, will depend on what happens in and around Iraq – and in the wider ‘war against terrorism’. Some parts of the anti-globalisation movement have already shown signs of mutating into an anti-war platform and a full-blown war might just give them the ‘shot in the arm’ they need.

Another area where there will inevitably be very different views is the main theme of the 2003 Davos event: trust. The loss of trust in business, WEF notes, ‘leads to weaker business partnerships, higher risks, higher interest rates and lower profit margins.’ Nor is it simply a matter of loss of trust in business. We are seeing much the same trend in the world of politics, with eroding respect for most politicians and falling voter turnouts.

The level of the debate may be signalled by the fact that one Davos session this year is titled ‘What is Trust?’ Generally, though, it is an emergent property of engagement and behaviour, not of public relations campaigns and promises. WEF will only be trusted by civil society if it is seen to be an agent of real change in the right directions.

I have heard that the number of NGOs and other civil society participants will be significantly down on 2002 in New York. This may simply be a consequence of the shift back to Davos. Whatever the balance of forces turns out to be, many world leaders will no doubt be feeling that they are misunderstood and that what is needed is better communication. Many of their critics, on the other hand, will be arguing that the problems we increasingly face, from the erosion of the power of national governments through to climate change, are hard-wired into the emerging system – and that system-level changes are now required.

Whether you are participating in Davos or Porto Alegre, or watching events from a safe distance, it is clear that summitry is on trial. Look back at a century of summits – many, if not most, of which failed to some significant degree – and it is clear that, where they are unsuccessful in tackling the real issues of the era, history has ways of forcing change. For the moment, however, I shall soon be packing my bags for Switzerland. And my colleagues will pack theirs for Brazil.

My view, and I share this with my colleagues at SustainAbility, is that both the WEF and WSF events are crucial potential leverage points. Although a Financial Times columnist recently described Davos as a ‘triumphalist gathering’, arguing that such events are ignoring ‘the legitimacy question that hovers uncomfortably over capitalism’ (John Plender, ‘Crystal balls and the businessman’s burden’, Financial Times, 6 January 2003), WEF today is much more open than it was in the 1990s. And, for the moment, I choose to believe that the road is worth taking – and that the bridgehead already established can be opened out further. But, as the French say, ‘On verra’ (we will see).


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