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Alpine Ambivalence: Reflections on Davos 2012

Amidst two meters of snow, world leaders from various sectors of society descended this past week on the Swiss resort town of Davos for the annual meeting of The World Economic Forum. Much has already been written about the history of the forum, and it has received adulation from writers such as Parag Khanna, as...

Amidst two meters of snow, world leaders from various sectors of society descended this past week on the Swiss resort town of Davos for the annual meeting of The World Economic Forum. Much has already been written about the history of the forum, and it has received adulation from writers such as Parag Khanna, as well as condemnations from critics of contemporary capitalism such as Noam Chomsky. My goal here is to reflect on five full days immersed from 7am to midnight in this event as part of the Forum’s  “Young Global Leaders” program.

This was my first visit to the gathering, which is on the calendar of over 2500 leading professionals and policy-makers, compared to whom I was a proverbial “fly on the wall.” First of all, the arrangements for a conference of this size in a remote locale are remarkable. The mere task of hosting such a gathering in a ski resort with the challenges of logistics is a testament to human resilience and Swiss prowess. This is by no means the most comfortable place to have a conference and fatigue does set in after a couple of days with challenges of walking on icy pavements and being bussed around small traffic-clogged mountain roads. Furthermore, this is not an event for a low budget by any means and a sense of asymmetric opulence rings true for most people when they speak of the summit.

On the train ride to Davos, Switzerland: The Path to Power? Photo by Saleem H. Ali


The Elephant in the Room

The most glaring issue that confronts middle-income delegates such as myself at Davos is global inequality, which even the International Monetary Fund recognized  as a seminal challenge facing the world. The forum tries its best to use the $75,000 entrance fee for each elite participant to subsidize some participation by those of us who could never imagine to pay such a sum for a five-day conference, in addition to the minimal hotel rooms charge of $400 per night. For social activists, it is easy to criticize the forum as an elite gathering but the task which the forum has to bridge stakeholders from various sectors of society is indeed very challenging.

I too have been modestly critical of the exclusionary nature of the Forum and can still sympathize with many activists who organize more egalitarian gatherings such as the World Social Forum (which got 75,000 delegates in Dakar, Senegal last year). However, what I realized during my time in Davos is that the Forum is criticized just as much by businesses for being too conciliatory towards non-profit and human rights organizations! So Professor Schwab, the founder of the forum, has a very difficult task indeed of truly bridging this chasm of class, perception and mutual antipathy.

Exclusionary “Expertise”

The challenges of multi-stakeholder engagement was  best exemplified to me during a rather acerbic conversation on the last day of the summit with an academic professional from a developing country who works on issues of trade and investment in emerging economies. He expressed sympathy with several prominent economists who are now hesitant to attend the Forum because there are too many “non-experts” allowed to be on panels. Furthermore, this distinguished professional expressed disdain for peace activists and others with no direct connection to “economics” being invited to discuss development issues and participating in programs such as The Young Global Leaders!   It was quite alarming for me to learn that the forum has tried to positively respond to criticism of exclusion and has incurred the wrath of many such professionals with a highly limited view of “expertise!”

The forum must not be intimidated by such scorn for alternative views, and should continue its efforts to bring multiple perspectives and diverse epistemology to the table. If they lose a few self-absorbed academics in the process there will happily be many other useful professionals to take their place. It is sheer folly to assume that data and analysis are somehow static and the last word on economic theory has been delivered.  Challenging expertise orthodoxy in one discipline to understand the complexity of human behavior is precisely the role organizations such as the Forum are best fashioned to tackle. Adherence to dogmatic views about capitalism or globalization is just as prevalent on the Left of the political spectrum.  The protesters at the periphery of the Forum also need to be willing to consider alternative perspectives and always question their embedded assumptions.

Occupy Davos Protesters had constructed an "inequality game." Photo by Saleem H. Ali

Panoramic Perspective

What is most refreshing about the Forum’s current format is its willingness to embrace the arts and culture and multiple disciplines from archaeology to astronomy.  However, such a panoramic vision is sadly not appreciated by the dominant clientele at Davos. Half the plenary audience evaporated after the keynote presentation by Angela Merkel, and when awards were given to violinist Midori, and African singer Yvonne Chaka Chaka. Yet the forum’s organizers are committed to this pluralism of expression to meet their mission of “improving the state of the world.”

The use of “idea labs” to present academic research by universities coupled with dynamic workshops within 75 minutes is a fantastic format that I greatly enjoyed.  Individual 30 minute interviews with notable academics, including Chemistry Nobel laureate Ahmed Zewail (one of only 2 science laureates with Muslim lineage). There were only 12 people in attendance for Dr. Zewail’s “one-on-one insights ” session and the host had to ask the audience to move forward  to the front row so the camera recording would show a full room. Kudos to the Forum for not just following a demand-driven strategy – and being audacious enough to invite quality presenters like Dr. Zewail.

Focus, Fun and Influence

Some critics of the Forum say that it does not “change the global agenda” and have suggested more focus for that reason.  It is true that the actual policy impact of the Forum is probably not particularly large in the short-run. However, systemic change in a pluralistic society is incremental and there are already enough “high-level” focused policy gatherings such as the G8, G20 or the numerous Conferences of the Parties (COP) to United Nations Conventions for that purpose.  Providing an opportunity for multiple stakeholders to connect within the highly stratified worlds of economic development is essential. Programs such as the Young Global Leaders or the Global Shapers provide an opportunity for emerging professionals to at least marginally cross these strata, and there are few other opportunities to do so elsewhere.

Efforts at crossing class strata have some humorous and humbling moments too. An amusing “Davos moment” for me that exemplifies our societal obsession with celebrities was when a colleague asked for a quick photograph with Bill Gates and was sternly scolded with a “No” by the legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist! I am sure this story will grace many tea parties and friendly conversations for that individual and his friends for years to come. What is of course more consequential is that people with power and influence such as Mr. Gates use the forum as a pedestal to announce important initiatives such as the donation of $750 million to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.

The numerous dinners, parties and receptions every evening allow for conversations that would be impossible in most other settings. One such dinner which I attended was with various senior ministers from the Middle East. Sharing a dinner table with a member of the Saudi royal family allowed me an opportunity to communicate serious concerns about the negative influence of Saudi funded madrassas in Pakistan in a detailed and deliberative way. Such a conversation between an academic and a royal would be almost impossible in most other conference venues. Whether or not such conversations have impact is hard to measure but the process of collective learning is inevitable.

Dialogue Platform: Pakistani political candidate Imran Khan and Indian Minister of State for Communication and Information Technology, Sachin Pilot on same panel at Davos. Photo by Saleem H. Ali


Additional Expectations

Despite all the aforementioned admirable aspects of the Davos summit, there is clearly room for improvement. For an organization with an estimated budget of over a $150 million there are indeed high expectations. Following the Occupy Movement and The Arab Spring of 2011, the forum needs to take concerns about inequality and poverty alleviation even more seriously. The Open Forum that was organized at a nearby high school for the protesters had very little engagement with the main forum. In one event on “The Future of Capitalism” the room was filled to capacity and even people who came half an hour early, such as myself, could not get in. No arrangements were made for recording or remote broadcasting the event despite all the high-tech facilities available at the main forum.

There was also a tendency to have panels on lots of different topics and themes but not as much cross-over. For example, the panel on the “future of economics” had two Nobel laureates (Joseph Stiglitz and Peter Diamond), Robert Shiller and Brian Arthur (who was ostensibly brought in as a slightly dissenting voice). However, tough issues that economists would need to address such as ecological constraints were not on the radar of the panel and even when pressed with questions, including one from Baron Nicholas Stern, in the audience they were reluctant to even engage on the topic.

The use of social media could also have been better-managed to counter critiques of exclusion. As a delegate I was regularly tweeting from all panels about the debates and conversations for sessions (while following Chatham House Rule guidelines where stipulated).  However, the official tweets or posts from the Forum could have been organized by topical lists and indexed by the numerous highly educated Forum staff who were often simply standing next to doors at almost every session. Have spoken to many of these staff, this was clearly an under-utilization of their skills.

Returning Home

As I write this article on my flight back home, I ask myself the question – was the investment of a week away from the family and my students and professional commitments worth the effort? The simple answer would be “absolutely yes.” More importantly, however, it is important for all Davos attendees to consider what metrics they use to respond to that question. The metrics should not solely be how many contracts or grant commitments an attendee might get, or the brush with celebrities that this unique event may accord. Rather the ultimate measure of a productive Davos summit should be how our assumptions about the world were challenged and the process of collective learning across pecuniary professional pursuits.


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Meet the Author

Author Photo Saleem Ali
Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.