Back in London, Monday morning, its chilly, but not a Davos cold, first day for a week where I do not have 15 meetings one after the other from 7 in the morning until 10 at night and beyond…I need a holiday, from everything.
Last year, I concluded by blog by wondering why so little seemed to happen from so much at Davos, a sort of reverse synergy. This year my sense is almost exactly the opposite…ha, people place too much emphasis on consistency anyway !…
We are all trying to work out what do about global governance. Like the poem about the infamous Scarlet Pimpernel (‘they seek him here, they seek him there, they seek him everywhere; is he in heaven, is he in hell, that dammed elusive Pimpernel’, or something like that), we wander around talking about it, describing bits of it, and wishing we had more of it, or perhaps less of it…well, last week, I came face to face with what looks to me like tomorrow’s model of global governance…the World Economic Forum itself. Here we have the convening space that brings together the most powerful people and institutions in the world today. They are visible for a moment in a speech or a news clip, and then engage with other over champagne dinners and late night coffees. There is no formal ‘debating chamber’, no parliament, no coherent structure of representation. Rock stars, labour leaders, politicians and grassroots Nobel Laureates come together to edge their individual and collective agendas forward, some small and local, but many large and global…it is the law of the jungle at Davos, your ‘dance card’ of meetings reveals your leverage more than anything, the more private, the more exclusive, the more jam packed, the more likely you are to be a mover and shaker.
The participants come and go, politicians and business leaders last a while, but not long…but WEF remains…its networks are infinitely better than any one CEO or civil society leader could ever hope to develop during their moments of glory. Senior people within WEF manage their ever-growing constituencies, using events and dialogue-based research as their growth and consolidation model, applying resources and brand to position WEF within each crucial debate, cross-marketing between initiatives to build synergies between people and topics that others could not hope to achieve at anything like the same level.
Before we misunderstand each other, I have a confession to make…I am not sure what I am describing is ‘bad’, although there are clearly enormous issues to resolve. The world’s leaders are not just those who are elected, and never were, they include a motley assortment of characters who build their constituencies through economic power, elected rights, hereditary routes, charisma, achievements and just simple luck…it is an obvious fact that we do need to find ways for these people to interact since they do run the place, the world that is. But the way they lead varies so dramatically that there is little point in trying to make Bono or Depardieu a minister of state (except in Brazil of course where Gilberto Gil is just that), just as there is little point in getting Lula or Brown to be rock stars (despite aspirations of Blair and Clinton)…we have to find a way to connect these people because they represent, in the oddest of ways, bits of who we are, what we do and dream about and what we want to become.
Of course there are loads of people not at the table, and some that I would rather were not…I am not saying that the set up is ‘fair’…and it is clear that this mechanism of world governance has little to do with our conventional understanding of accountability…but it is beholden upon me to say, that many of the world’s most powerful NGOs and labour unions are there, as are some of the youth culture’s most iconic leaders…compare this to the UN General Assembly, today’s closest attempt at a formal global representative model…few of us believe for a moment that this is a credible governance mechanism…largely stodgy old men in suits languishing in semi-sleep, making polemical, pre-prepared statements, and paying little attention to each for most of the time…the Forest Stewardship Council, to take one of many examples, winner of the Alcan Sustainability Award this year ($1 million, no less), embodies in many ways a more flourishing process of real dialogue many times over…
My aim is not to exaggerate the significance of, demonise or celebrate WEF…it is merely to point out that it is an increasingly important part of today’s global governance process…and that is not just about what it does itself, but that the process that it points us towards is likely to be a crucial model in the coming decades…loose, organic, dialogic, exclusive, competitive, crossing cultures, religions, and parts of society…
…but of course WEF is not a neutral space, and here lies the rub, deep within the process, the fabric of the programme, imprinted on the invitee list, there is a presumption about what kind of world we are in and what we are trying to create…some parts of the assumptions made I would probably agree with, the rights of individuals, property rights (hmmm, that old chestnut), some form of democratic process…and other stuff is more difficult, the imperative of – indeed, the ‘human right’ to open trade and capital flows, the sanctity of the investment community and, unsurprising given the organisation I am part of, the underlying presumptions about how accountability should be shaped, and how it should not be shaped.
WEF is the quintessential ‘facilipulator’, straddling the role of facilitator and manipulator…again, this is not bad in itself, it is what anyone with a change agenda is every time they get up in the morning…but this is the complication in the model…the agenda embraces corporate citizenship but forgets about the topic of corporate taxes, it talks about the need to increase official development assistance (ODA) but makes the mind numbing numbers and effects of the arms industry invisible, it talks about crime, but forgets about the detrimental effects of legal drugs such as booze and cigarettes, it promotes democracy at ever step but does not debate either the declining civil rights of the West or the transparently successful capitalism of undemocratic countries, it discusses lowering drug prices for poor people in the South, but fails to debate the huge government support of a high cost drug culture in the US and increasingly in Europe…
…these are deeply rooted gaps and fractures that do WEF no credit, but explain why they are still in business today, such gaps are not the inventions of evil men, but of a pragmatic and deeply political organisation working out the viable limits of what can and cannot be on the table if they want the world’s most powerful people to turn up for the meal.
I come away from Davos this year more convinced than ever that we do have to innovate in accountability space if we want to progress a serious agenda of justice and environmental sanity…our liberal, over-structured parliaments and multilateral institutions are just not working; giving more ground to the media is like handing the keys to heaven to the mad aunt in the attic…we have to innovate, but with some consciousness of what are doing…yes, the internet opens the way to talk, just as open source leads the way to co-create, but the accountability implications of these developments are not clear and their enthusiastic promoters – like every generation - see themselves as the vanguard of accountability with little thought to the more Orwellian effects of their collective efforts. Just as Isaac Asimov argued, the answers to the problems of Empire may not just lie at the other end of the universe, even if we have to go there to look back and see the seeds of change within the heart of the beast…the Davos model is fraught with problems, some of which are probably inherent in the desire to mobilise those with power, rather than those without…but the underlying process of Davos, with its on-going elements that continue 365 days a year, should not be ignored for its potential as well as its dangers in providing clues on how best to reinvent accountability for the 21st century.
Partnerships – the New Development Pathway
Its almost reached a point where having a session on partnerships is like having a session on ‘development’…I fondly remember Wolfgang Sach’s (the other one) Development Dictionary that unpacked the language of development…I suspect it is time to update it…I attended one large workshop on partnerships, mainly to explore whether the discussion had reached a stage where the governance and accountability issues had finally surfaced…Adele Simmons was great in highlighting the issue, and interestingly it was companies around the table that highlighted the issue…worrying was that the NGOs in attendance most involved in partnerships were least willing to put this top of their agendas, a sign of an Orwellian transition of at least some engaged NGOs into part of the accountability deficit, rather than the means through which it would be addressed…the representative from one fair trade labelling operation was clear about their agenda, which was in part “to pursuade more aggressive NGOs to come to the table to work with business”…a curious interpretation of the politics of change…we debate the pros and cons of ownership in fair trade as part of partnerships…Starbucks not impressed, Oxfam and Transfair cautiously supportive...another person argues, ‘fair trade is about trade, not ownership’, and the conversation dries and moves on…“The significance of partnerships in the world of MDGs is very small”, says a key UN person…we need to focus on going to scale and replicability…other people say that partnerships are the route to scale…
Oxfam gives feedback, highlighting that we had talked about governance and accountability in our session, but not mentioning that all that had in fact been discussed was the accountability of farmers, not at all of the commercial partner…I am confused!…Starbucks talks about the challenge of scaling up, “it will take decades to really get anything significant on the way”...my poor memory in the early fair trade days was that it was both a thing in itself but also a trigger of systematic change in how specific markets function…this version of scaling seems to have vanished in the discussion, the real strategic options of remoulding markets by taking full advantage of competitive dynamics between companies, and even viral effects between essentially non-competing markets….here we still seem to be confusing scaling for ‘getting bigger’, and confusing normalisation for ‘standardisation’…NGOs are seriously at fault here, again not trusting the potential of the market in getting to scale and so falling back on a compliance model of accountability, and institutional growth as the preferred model of scale.
The MDGs and Business
WEF’s Global Governance Initiative produces an annual report on our progress towards achieving the millennium development goals. This year the focus was on businesses’ contribution, and Jeff Sachs, along with the report’s authors, were hosting a meeting on this topic. I went along to hear the stories. First of all, the meeting was attended by more or less 50 people, of which at least two thirds were not businesses (remember that over 60% of Davos participants are from business). Secondly, we heard some great stuff from BC Hydro, Accenture (again) and other companies in the room about what they were doing. One heart rending story that burst upon us was from a disaffected Bloomberg reporter who described the total irrelevance of this agenda in the rump of the business community, particularly the investment community (see AccountAbility’s website to look at our report on ‘mainstreaming responsible investment’, launched and discussed at Davos today). Then Wangari Maathi took the floor, softly noting the lack of Africans at the meeting, and the crucial importance of doing things with people not for people, and offered her inspiring experience to illustrate the point.
I didn’t get a chance to raise my point, as too many hands were raised in front of me. But it did strike me that our drive for innovation in this space was leading us to forget the basics. Neither the GCI report nor the discussion in the room touched upon the matter of taxes. I recalled the recent article about General Motors, which has just declared its global tax liability for the last year of just 3% of income, an amount so tiny that it even astonished the investment community and the company’s peers. Similarly, there was no discussion of the links to bribery, a topic covered extensively at Davos, but somehow unlocked from the discussion of MDG drivers and impediments. Similarly lacking was any discussion of the arms industry, the single most important resource drain and source of insecurity…
…finally, I was bemused that no one talked about the role of the investment community in enabling or, today, preventing business taking MDGs into account. Its kind of weird that Davos has focused on ‘financing for development’ for the last 96 hours, but has almost completely ignored the role of fund managers, analysts, credit rating agencies and, yes indeed, our representatives the pension fund trustees. My session on mainstreaming responsible investment’ was great, digging into the matter of fund manager incentives, marginalized labor representative trustees, ignorant analysts, and any number of conflicts of interest up and down the investment value chain…(I did a digital tape of the session, so maybe I can get it onto the web when I get back to London)…the participants were really engaged, probing to identify the tipping points that could guide interventions in this enriched and profoundly privatised industry…but the session was programmatically unlocked from the core debate about poverty, inequality and environmental insecurity, despite the fact that it is one, and an important one of the drivers of these outcomes…makes one kind of lonely, wondering what it takes to unlock brilliant minds and willing hearts from institutionalised veils of ignorance.
Just past eight in the morning on Saturday morning…the cold outside is intense, of the order of minus twenty…I slip into the main Congress Hall, noticing how lonely my coat looks on the expansive racks that normally hold up to 1.500 coats, hats, gloves, scarves and bags…it is the last main day of Davos, and people are resting, exhausted by bilaterals, panels, issues and, most of all, that so human activity contact and communication.
My last event of Friday night was a ‘night cap with bill gates’…Bill took the floor in a small room with a selected 100 or so people invited to ‘listen and learn’…his remarks were wide ranging, on the technology side, he talked about computers that will speak, listen and learn…we sold a million tablet computers last year…particularly doctors and insurance workers…convergence and internet and loadsa other goodies, competition with Google and Linux, the ups and downs of open source…and then to the different world that he had been part of a few hours ago when he spelt out the need for $4 billion to safe the lives of 5 million people, the strength of the proposed financing facility, the opportunity to make a difference, the importance of collective action…
…his amiable romp through these aspects of his and our lives left be wondering about their connection. No one doubts the potential of e-communication to enhance lives of the rich and also in many ways the poor…but is there a deeper dilemma here. Bill’s key remark about emerging technologies and their application was that the individual would increasingly lie at its core, not the applications…makes sense of course, for everything from playlists to knowledge banks to be ‘with me’ rather than me having to find them and make sense of their technical and so content-based connection, easier, more individual-centric and of course, as ever faster…but how does this square with our need to reflect, to become wiser not just more information-rich, to seek collective strength not individual focus, to engage and empathise, not connect voyeuristically. Part of the answer to this is certainly that e-communities, blogs and indeed basic information can make a positive difference…the response to the Tsunami would not have been so powerful without technology, and we have seen the potential (although not the success) of internet communities in Howard Dean’s UK presidential election campaign. But this is only one part of the story…the increased pace of e-life is part and parcel of the very short-termism that drives us to seek immediate gratification on all fronts, from investor behaviour to fast food to famine relief…short termism is an enemy of development, not because we are not urgent, but because we do not really engage in understanding and change. When Sharon Stone received incredible applause for her inappropriate high-style philanthropy, she was feeding the disease of short termism…is it the same with our e-world, and is Bill Gates part of that development.
Mr Gates has done some brilliant stuff in business and indeed now in the development space, he is far from a modern Rockefeller, whose motto of make any way you must and then give it away has (perhaps permanently) blighted the US approach to corporate responsibility. But the night cap did leave me uneasy that he too easily slipped between his two worlds uncritical in their possible tensions and perhaps even contradications.
People giving money is great, but it is amazing how confused conversations become, one minute talking about financing mechanisms, then talking about the transnational control of its use, and then a US-style giving lottery…how best can we make sense of this.
“So lets count the numbers of bed nets that Davos generated this year…we have one million dollars collected…how many can that buy…how wonderful”
Oh No !
stands up and offers $10,000 to Mkapa to buy nets…then she calls for other
people to give money…someone shouts out $50,000…then others are standing up and
offering pledges, then the audience is roaring and clapping….and we are all
having a wonderful time…
The massive Congress Hall is full, people attentive, engaged and definitely enthusiastic, there is belief in the air…interesting argument really, a brilliant approach designed by Brown, but Mkapa’s position is clearly one of governance and accountability…the facility appears to be linked to moving money through transnational delivery systems like GAVI, these are two deals not one, but tied at the hip…GAVI is clearly not controlled through any traditional democratic process…but it has been amazingly successful, so what does this mean, how do we deal with this…my conversation at the Accenture dinner (see other blog) about the limits of democracy are suddenly live, immediate, with a possible massive social and economic innovation on the table that will walk around national methods of representation that so many have fought to make real…is this the start of a new phase of global governance, just as AccountAbility predicted in its early work on partnership accountability…how can GAVI be held to account when the inspired have moved on, and the lights have been turned off, and these global partnerships have lost their innovative edge and are more like the massive global bureaucracies that have dogged our past…or can we see a light and work on the governance and accountability dimensions of this before it goes wrong.
Brown…this is just a temporary funding mechanism…we are committed to the 0.7 target…but the timescale to get there is too great…the IFF gets around this, moves funds now.
Gates…delivering vaccines is the way to go because despots and dictators do not want to horde vaccines, so they are more likely to get where they need to go…
Sachs…the IFF is a brilliant way to leverage resources in the short term…but Mkapa is also right, and the G7 have the opportunity to cancel Tanzania’s debt, right now on February 7th…bed nets could save more than a million lives a year, there are brilliant water harvesting techniques…these are all practical things to do, driven through business like mechanisms such as GAVI.
Finally I get to go to one of the Big Sessions, a massive plenary including Lulu, freshly arrived from Porte Allegre’s mixed reception (see WSF Blog), Gordon Brown, arriving in Davos presumably only after being assured that Blair has moved on, President Mkapa (Tanzania), Minister Sinscalco (Italy), Jeffrey Sachs, and Bill Gates…an all star, all male, cast tasked with ‘paying to overcome poverty’…or what the US facilitator nimbly names ‘the war on poverty’.
Mkapa kicks off the war facing a question on aid… ‘speaking from the perspective of a poor indebted country’…(hmmm…what a start)…commodity prices are unstable and unfair (okay…warming up), and there is no plan on the table to sort this out…Tanzania has incurred enormous debts and the risks fall entirely on us, we carry the burden of debt unilaterally…this is a policy of enrichment, not development….the UK Facilitator comes in ‘what a beautiful opening, let me turn to Mr Brown… ‘we have to create growth, and business development…we promised that we would not disable serious development efforts by restraining financing…some of the MDGs will not on current trends be met until 2065…this is unacceptable…80% of debt is owed to the multlaterals, and that is why we are proposing 100% relief on these debts…it can be done, and must be done…
Sachs…the UK, Germany and France have agreed to back up their financing commitments, the US is over $50 billion in the red on its base commitments…we don’t need to talk about it anymore, we just need to see people and countries doing what they have said they will do.
Gates…think about why the aid is needed, most people are in strengthening economies, but we have 2 billion people in countries and parts of countries which are in vicious cycles…we need the money to reverse this cycle, the scale of the problem is such that philanthropy is just not at the right scale…if we wait, people are dying…if we get $4 billion in the global vaccines initiative, we could save five million lives…its an amazing thing to say and think about.
Lula…we are all speaking very fast here, we are starting a new century and we all need to reflect on what happened in the last century…are we going to do something different, new, important. The gap last century between the rich and poor grew, we have to convince the rich to take away subsidies on products where we are more competitive…this is a structural issue and must and can change…we do need a new structure for new funds, we have to use existing structures, we have to raise taxes against arms sales, or on trade, or on monies held in tax havens…then we can work out how to allocate monies to health and education and infrastructure…hunger is a problem for those who are eating, not just for those who are hungry…I have just came from the WSF…
…then he was interrupted by the facilitator…
Brown…we have to face up to agricultural protectionism of $300 billion…we spend a dollar a week or less on child education in Africa, traditional funding mechanisms are just not going to do it…we have to look at new funding mechanisms…international tax systems are difficult, since countries can opt out…the international financing facility I am proposing is not perfect, but can help right now, with front loaded resources available…and then we the rich agree to service the debts incurred…Italy, France, Germany and the UK are behind this, developing countries are behind this…we could get this up and running this year if we pull together…we could use GAVI as a pilot, building on the 50 million vaccinations already delivered…we would push the $4 billion into the mechanism and then start really saving lives.
Mkapa…we already have a fund, through the ODA now, the 0.7 commitments…why not just cancel my debt and then we can spend our own money on such programmes…then we need no other mechanisms or facilities, we can fund the war on poverty ourselves, we can reform our economies as governments accountable to our people.