This may be one of the weeks that redefines the shape of the world, although the impact is as yet extremely uncertain. The civil unrest that started in Tunisia, toppling the government, has spread rapidly and often violently across North Africa and the Middle East. Protests in Yemen this week have called for the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. There have also been protests in Algeria, Sudan and Jordan, which may yet gain momentum. But the focus of the world has been on the growing civil unrest in Egypt as thousands of protesters call for the departure of President Mubarak after 30 years of rule. It’s no longer just the better educated but also the very poor. Unlike the rapidly developing economies of Asia and Latin America, the Egyptians have been becoming worse off. Prices of basic necessities have increased, unemployment rates are very high, particularly among the young who make up a substantial part of the country’s population, and Egypt has weak ties to take advantage of globalization. Add in an authoritarian regime which has repressed basic human rights over decades, and religious tensions. The mix has proven explosive – and it is a recipe echoed across the region, which don’t forget controls the majority of the world’s oil reserves, causing huge concerns globally about economic and geopolitical destabilization. With all this going on, why have so many of the world’s “great and good” been paying vast amounts to spend the week up a mountain in Switzerland?
Davos Man, and Woman (more were mandated by the organizers), convened under the headline “Shared Norms for the New Reality” this year. Announcing the theme, the World Economic Forum (WEF) said it: “Reflects the foremost concern of many leaders today – namely, living in a world that is becoming increasingly complex and interconnected and, at the same time, experiencing an erosion of common values and principles that undermines public trust in leadership as well as future economic growth and political stability.” Topics for debate included: 1. Responding to the New Reality; 2. The Economic Outlook and Defining Policies for Inclusive Growth; 3. Supporting the G20 Agenda; 4. Building a Risk Response Network. A good agenda when looked at from the perspective of the elite group of politicians, financiers and business leaders gathered in Davos, and one which reflects some of the critical issues facing a two-track economic world including financial reforms, trade, sovereign debt and social responsibility.
However, as with many international forums including the G20, there are some challenges in moving this agenda towards real, actionable solutions. First, the reality is that many come to Davos not to spend their time in forging new approaches to global issues but in deal-making, networking and self-promotion. After all, where else can you find all the people you really want to speak to in such a small area? Second, there is still a preponderance of “old world” voices and perspectives, even though the WEF has been actively encouraging the participation of emerging stakeholders and influencers, including the BRIC and beyond countries – the annual ball showcased India – along with NGOs and social media. These “old” voices risk keeping the agenda focused on past and current debates – as amply demonstrated in the spat between Jamie Dimon and Nicolas Sarkozy over banking regulation – rather than future challenges. Third, some of the key players whose participation in global issues is critical appear to be losing interest. Where is the senior US political leadership? Fourth, we may all be missing a dimension in thinking about a two-track world. Events in Egypt offer a stark wake-up call that there is a third track of nations being left behind in the celebration of globalization. Jean-Pierre Lehmann’s article The 21st Century Arab Awakening? yesterday offers an excellent overview of the challenges facing Egypt and its neighbours, along with some thoughts on what may be ahead, although even he says he may be a little optimistic.
The ultimate challenge for Davos is that it remains a talking shop, stuck in the realm of frameworks, ideas and principles. It’s easy to talk consensus and cooperation when stuck in a small space, a cozy environment with your peers, far away from what is happening in the real world. A risk framework is no use if we don’t know what to do when the risks actually happen. Do we know what do when we don’t have the voices present of those experiencing what could be a very dangerous crisis for the world? Is there a plan for engaging new regimes driven by strong religious beliefs, given there is the potential for Egypt and other countries to end up with regimes closer to Iran than Turkey?
Having said that the vision behind Davos is sound. Of all the international forums, it actively attempts to bring together the shapers and influencers who could really make a difference on global issues. Davos-bashing is hardly new, but I am much more interested in making positive suggestions for how its promise can be realized. So to borrow a title from author Dr. Seuss: If I Ran the Circus… Or, in this case Davos. Now what would I do?
If you want to join in, first you have to go out,
Here’s the thing I tell you I’m thinking about.
A man in a desert’s crying over his corn,
He’s been a corn man since before you were born.
But it’s hard in the sun to stand in the sand,
When the water’s all gone and they’ve taken his land.
There’s a woman in water right up to her knees
As her poor hungry children climb up in the trees.
The floods took their house, their cattle, their clothes,
How they will find shelter now, nobody knows.
Come on, come on, there is more still to see!
A world full of shadows, where people aren’t free,
A world of oppression, corruption and shame,
A world where democracy speaks not its name.
So how do you feel?
You still want this deal?
If you want to come in, then you have to commit,
Forget your big sale, forget your stock split!
Leave behind those nice words – their meaning is hollow,
It’s in action that we’ll all start building tomorrow.
What would I do, in a nutshell? The price of entry: Understanding the real issues at grassroots level. The focus: Mapping out real solutions, moving beyond nice words to actions; harnessing imagination, curiosity and a willingness to embrace diverse perspectives. The commitment: Starting the process, and then following through. Agreement is easy; it’s doing what we have agreed that is hard. Commitments that come to nothing only add to the lack of trust from which so many national and international institutions are suffering.
Let us hope and work towards a peaceful and positive transition for Egypt and its neighbours. The arrival of Tunisia’s new governor of the central bank, Mustapha Kamel Nabli, and Transport Minister, Yacine Brahim, in Davos yesterday saw a warm welcome as they sought to restore confidence in the country. “Democracy is taking root. Even given the lack of democratic traditions in the country and so on, but the people have shown a high degree of maturity and a high degree of responsibility,” said Nabli. The next few weeks will be critical in seeing how the transitions unfold elsewhere. Your thoughts are very welcome as always.