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political magazine January 2005
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openDemocracy reports from the World Economic Forum taking place in Davos, Switzerland from 26-30 January.

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Accountability Reflections

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.

January 31, 2005 | Permalink


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