Don’t Hate on Davos
This year is my 10th trudge up the “Magic Mountain” to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. I’m not Dmitry Medvedev, Bill Gates, or Jamie Dimon — all of whom were visible in the Congress Center corridors today — but like them, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t worthwhile. The critics who dismiss Davos as a waste of time are often those who were either not invited or not interested in making a contribution to anything beyond their own bottom line. But with the G-20 far less than the sum of its parts and the U.S.-China G-2 more a boxing match than lovers’ embrace, Davos represents a fluid yet far more inclusive and flexible forum for global actors to meet and cooperate.
This year at the WEF, there has been very little back-patting — even by the Wall Street bankers whose profits are soaring again. Instead, the mood is cautious, yet not quite gloomy. In fact, Wall Street has little to do with the underlying story that Davos really captures today: the globalization of globalization. At a breakfast session on the future of the global economy on Thursday morning in the stately Belvédère Hotel that overlooks the village, there wasn’t a single North American accent on the stage, but no one seemed to notice. Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation; Juan Carlos Echeverry, Colombia’s finance minister; and other figures from what used to be called the “global south” were all busy pointing to the ways in which trade across emerging markets — between Latin America and the Middle East, Africa and India, China and Latin America — is growing at double-digit rates. Commodities, consumer products, and construction services are all crossing the oceans at record rates, just a couple of years after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.
The reason is simple: Globalization is going global. We used to think of globalization as a totalizing process, but one that is Western-driven and therefore “good.” The World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos is the easiest and best place to see the writing on the wall. The United Nations, International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and other international organizations are having a hard time adapting to the growing clout of rising powers and cash-rich multinational corporations. Even as the IMF has returned to the scene to provide fiscal lifelines, its geographic scope remains limited and perhaps temporary.
Furthermore, it hasn’t stopped Asians, Arabs, and Latin Americans from pursuing their own regional arrangements to avoid being under the Western thumb. Indeed, at Davos, the ministers and CEOs from the non-Western world comfortably take center stage. If you want to talk Chinese state-owned companies into pursuing good corporate citizenship schemes in Africa or Indian multinationals into respecting environmental codes, you’re better off making the case at Davos than at the OECD. This — and venues like it where business, NGOs, and governments come together — is where SustainAbility, Global Witness, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), and others hold dialogues with Chinese and Africans in the same room to find common ground. Unfortunately, Western diplomats have been slower to take advantage of the opportunities that Davos provides.
Given the sound bites that typically emerge from these meetings, one could be forgiven for thinking that this year’s WEF represents just more of the same. Indeed, the buzzwords at Davos this week are “risk,” “resilience,” and “shared norms” — terms repeated ad nauseam in the corridors of government offices as well. But only the WEF has stepped up to create a network of risk officers from governments, companies, NGOs, and academia who will share analysis and early-warnings about the interrelationship of financial, political, and environmental risks. This Global Risk Network will have its own small secretariat and use the latest online collaboration technologies; it won’t sit around waiting to get everyone in a room for bureaucratic lunches. You don’t build resilience by relying on the U.S. Treasury Department to pursue sensible monetary policy, but by creating new connections and building local buffers to minimize dependence on unreliable actors. Asians will pool capital into their own regional monetary fund, cities will pursue their own foreign investors, and poor countries will bring down barriers with each other. If nothing else, the WEF is an enabler; it stands as an open space for those connections to be born.
At lot of people think that because the media flocks to Davos and gives Bono’s appearances 24/7 coverage, they actually know what’s going on. But that’s like claiming to understand the entire U.N. system after watching presidents’ speeches to the General Assembly. Davos is just an event, while the WEF is a standing institution with a budget and staff size to rival smaller international organizations. It created one of the first greenhouse gas emissions registries for companies, designed a handbook to train factory managers in raising AIDS awareness in sub-Saharan Africa, created partnerships between Israeli and Arab businesses, and founded anti-corruption programs to train managers in Romania, Brazil, and other emerging markets. For every photo-op with a celebrity or over-the-top soiree, there is a corporate citizenship deal struck that goes largely unnoticed — but important to the people on the ground thousands of miles from Davos who will actually benefit. Quite a far cry from the superficial view outsiders are far too often fed.
More Davos-like congresses are needed harness the world’s emerging power centers; not just presidents, but CEOs, entrepreneurs and activists. Indeed, what matters most of all is not what happens at Davos but who copies it. The main measure of Davos’s impact may be those who are already trying to copy it. Its demonstration effect is visible already in events ranging from the Clinton Global Initiative to the Saudi Arabia General Investment Authority’s “Davos in the Desert” conveniently set for the week prior to the WEF.
Hearing the positive stories emerging out of Davos this year, one Western journalist remarked to me, “I came as a reluctant pessimist; I leave as a cautious optimist.” But that may be beside the point: Regardless of how you want to see it, the future of global governance looks more like lots of mini-Davoses than like the United Nations.