Making sense of Davos

January 9, 2012

When the World Eco­nom­ic For­um pub­lishes a well-researched report on glob­al gender gaps, sus­tain­able con­sump­tion, water secur­ity or com­pet­it­ive­ness, it fuels glob­al debate. When it gath­ers its Mem­bers from the busi­ness world with oth­ers from a broad swathe of soci­ety (aca­dem­ics, artists, politi­cians, human rights cam­paign­ers, trade uni­on­ists, envir­on­ment­al­ists and more), it becomes either the sin­is­ter archi­tect of a glob­al con­spir­acy or the con­vener of a point­less gab­fest: Weltver­schwörung or waffle.

So what is the For­um? I can’t pre­tend to give you the defin­it­ive answer, but I can tell you how I make sense of it, hav­ing spent my work­ing life in tele­vi­sion news and high­er edu­ca­tion. It might be help­ful to start by say­ing what it isn’t.

It is not a lob­by­ing or advocacy group. The world’s biggest com­pan­ies have little dif­fi­culty in secur­ing private meet­ings with whom­so­ever they choose. Politi­cians have good reas­ons to meet with com­pan­ies who might be employ­ers, and fin­an­ci­ers who might be investors. Trade asso­ci­ations, employ­ers’ groups and nation­al cham­bers of com­merce all host such meet­ings and cam­paign on behalf of their mem­bers. This is not the role of the World Eco­nom­ic For­um.

It is not a net­work­ing asso­ci­ation. The Brit­ish prime minister’s coun­try res­id­ence at Chequers has long played host to eclect­ic gath­er­ings where journ­al­ists, bankers and celebrit­ies are encour­aged to rub shoulders. Doubt­less there are inter­est­ing con­ver­sa­tions over the marmalade, but that’s not the role of the World Eco­nom­ic For­um either.

So, what is the Forum’s reas­on for being? There is a Ger­man part to the explan­a­tion and a Swiss part. For the Ger­man part, you have to step back to the coun­try post-World War 2: des­troyed by extreme nation­al­ism; divided by com­mun­ism; its West­ern lead­ers seek­ing to rebuild their industry on a mod­el that could also rebuild their soci­ety.

That pro­cess meant re-ima­gin­ing indus­tri­al polit­ics. At its heart was the idea that busi­ness did not exist simply to serve share­hold­ers. Instead, an enter­prise should recog­nize its place with­in a con­stel­la­tion that includes employ­ees, sup­pli­ers, con­sumers, neigh­bours and bey­ond – its “stake­hold­ers”. For a firm to be account­able only to share­hold­ers was too nar­row. Cor­por­a­tions needed to embrace their broad­er respons­ib­il­it­ies as social, polit­ic­al, intel­lec­tu­al, cul­tur­al and even artist­ic or spir­itu­al act­ors. And under­stand­ing those respons­ib­il­it­ies required inter­ac­tion.

The idea doesn’t have an easy Eng­lish label, and it is hardly in com­mon cur­rency. The For­um calls it the “multistake­hold­er” prin­ciple, and that prin­ciple extra­pol­ated to a glob­al level is what gath­ers Mem­bers of the World Eco­nom­ic For­um with oth­er glob­al stake­hold­ers.

The World Eco­nom­ic For­um has one simple motiv­a­tion in bring­ing people togeth­er – “con­ven­ing” in the jar­gon of inter­na­tion­al organ­iz­a­tions. It believes that its Mem­bers can only truly under­stand their interests by encoun­ter­ing the interests of oth­ers.

Then there is the Swiss part: par­ti­cip­a­tion. Per­haps it reflects the tra­di­tion of moun­tain com­munit­ies that respons­ib­il­ity be shared, that every view must be integ­rated, that one can­not simply abrog­ate one’s mem­ber­ship in a com­munity. It is an old idea. It was prob­ably old when it was artic­u­lated by one of Geneva’s most fam­ous sons, the polit­ic­al philo­soph­er Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For the Swiss, it is a prin­ciple of their demo­cracy – the Konkord­anz­sys­tem.

That demo­cracy at fed­er­al, can­ton­al and town level is con­sul­ted in the pre­par­a­tions for the Forum’s Annu­al Meet­ing in Dav­os. Dav­os is an inde­pend­ently-minded moun­tain com­munity, steeped in Switzerland’s dir­ect demo­crat­ic tra­di­tion. Its alti­tude and an enter­pris­ing doc­tor, Alex­an­der Spen­gler, made it a des­tin­a­tion for well-heeled tuber­cu­los­is suf­fer­ers. Thomas Mann set his com­edy of ennerv­a­tion, The Magic Moun­tain, in one of its san­at­or­ia. Albert Ein­stein helped kick-start its repu­ta­tion as an intel­lec­tu­al retreat (video).

Dav­os today is a work­ing alpine town. The town’s tour­ism is a func­tion­al con­trast to the chocol­ate box world of Vil­lars, Zer­matt and St Mor­itz. The Forum’s Annu­al Meet­ing boosts the loc­al eco­nomy, but not its winter sports. Barely one-fifth of those par­ti­cip­at­ing can be accom­mod­ated in a five-star hotel. The loc­al ski-lift com­pany has con­tem­plated shut­ting the lifts dur­ing the Meet­ing. When I’m there, as a mem­ber of the For­um, I sleep on a single bed and share a bath­room. Hard­ship? Not really, but it is work.

And that suits the For­um, because it deals with the world as it is, not as it would prefer it to be. It is not a decision-mak­ing body. Nor is it a con­spir­acy in which the horo­lo­gic­al com­pon­ents of glob­al gov­ernance and industry are wound togeth­er to frus­trate the rest of the world.

For the busi­nesses and organ­iz­a­tions and indi­vidu­als who come togeth­er in Dav­os, the oppor­tun­ity simply to meet with one anoth­er, to think out­side their usu­al entour­age of attend­ant coun­sel and advisers, and to have no pre­de­ter­mined out­come assigned to every encounter is both a relief and an oppor­tun­ity. It brings togeth­er com­pet­it­ors and col­leagues, prot­ag­on­ists and ant­ag­on­ists, the well respec­ted and the heart­ily reviled, without requir­ing all who enter to adhere to its pre­cepts or accept its prin­ciples.

It is an incre­ment­al­ist organ­iz­a­tion. It moves slowly, and a diverse fund­ing base means that it is not a host­age to any interest. Much nego­ti­ation and plan­ning is required simply to arrive at a con­sensus around which debate can take place. But when that con­sensus is achieved, move­ment can be pro­found.

Fabi­ans would recog­nize the bene­fits of a plat­form from which Nel­son Man­dela could announce his eco­nom­ic policy for the post-apartheid era in South Africa. It can inspire extraordin­ary acts of phil­an­thropy, like those of Bill and Melinda Gates. It can provide a glob­al micro­phone to someone like Aung San Suu Kyi. Like any plat­form, its power comes from the people who stand upon it, and their power in turn derives from the strength of their organ­iz­a­tions, their office or their ideas.

At any gath­er­ing of the power­ful, most often power remains frus­trat­ingly unwiel­ded. Swords stay planted in stones. And so there is frus­tra­tion. Why doesn’t the For­um DO some­thing? Why does it take in coun­try X, lead­er Y? Why does it nudge gently rather than poke aggress­ively? How can it let things stay the same?

Every­one who works for a com­plex organ­iz­a­tion makes com­prom­ises. Some­times those com­prom­ises come off, and the reward is pro­gress. Some­times they don’t. Encour­aging power to accept respons­ib­il­ity can be a cov­er for expedi­ency, but it can also prompt change. Organ­iz­a­tion­al cul­tures are self-rein­for­cing. If enough people with­in an organ­iz­a­tion judge their own con­tri­bu­tion by its mis­sion “to improve the state of the world”, it puts a value to their work and gives them mean­ing.

The world remains a com­plex and dys­func­tion­al place. Yet it is a big­ger and bet­ter place than the world I grew up in, in the world’s first indus­tri­al eco­nomy. In the early 1970s, women like my grand­moth­er wore head­scarves to go to mar­ket; heat and water came from coal scraped from scuttles; and a job meant simply work for men – labour that was fuelled by tinned food and for­got­ten with weak beer, the wire­less and the foot­ball pools. And this life was the best on offer for the most-favoured mil­lions. This was the world in which the For­um was cre­ated.

I am con­vinced that eco­nom­ic pro­gress can drive social and polit­ic­al pro­gress. Later this month, the World Eco­nom­ic For­um, under the rub­ric of the theme of its Annu­al Meet­ing – The Great Trans­form­a­tion: Shap­ing New Mod­els – will ask par­ti­cipants in Dav­os to think again about how the world works. The For­um too recog­nizes that even its own mod­el needs to be ques­tioned. Often and reg­u­larly.

Cross­pos­ted from Forum:Blog.

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