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

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Saturday Blues

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.

January 29, 2005 | Permalink


Simon's blogged notes on Davos make fascinating reading. It is inspiring to see a critical, informed and engaged intelligence at work at such a gathering of the Great and the (wannabee) Good.

Simon's blog offers a rich sense of the atmosphere -- such as the many ingenious and well-intentioned proposals about, dare I say, how to throw yet more money at formidably complex problems with nary a thought (as Simon repeatedly observes) about who governs things, accounts for the outcomes or how the democratic deficits are to be filled, particularly if the outcomes of those new showers of money leave intended beneficiaries worse off than before.

There's so much to say about what's being said at Davos. But Simon's blog may also be read with an eye to what was =not= being said. No one within Simon's earshot it seems talked about jettisoning the policies that help generate so much of the poverty, inequality and collective humiliation that's making the planet less peaceful and secure with every passing year. After all, even some intellectual streams in Western governments are posing this as a valid option. For example, in identifying major obstacles to growth, debt reduction and equitable development in poor countries, a report by the Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry's main research unit for aid and development recently concluded: "The neo-liberal policy whereby liberalisation of markets is expected to encourage economic growth, by definition leaves little scope for growth-stimulating measures." In other words, policy prescriptions current in force in fact do not cure, and indeed are pretty much counter-productive. So if some voices in governments are concluding that it's time to abandon market fundamentalism, like miasma theory and blood-letting with leaches, why not Davos voices too?

Simon has phenomenal antennae and no doubt picked up the gist of Davos Man's (and Woman's) current received wisdom. But might some of those men and women - and perhaps that French water multinational rep, who remarked in Simon's presence about the whole system being broken, might be a case in point -- also be questioning their received wisdoms?

Posted by: David Sogge | Jan 29, 2005 8:30:18 AM

Simon, your penchant for understatement is breathtaking. With an endowment of $27 billion dollars, I'd say that the Gates' Foundation and philosophy on giving (remember this is their private wealth that funds the Foundation)sets an impressive and modern example of individual contribution to the (global) community. As for the "blighted American approach to corporate responsibility" as always, we lead the way, with of course, a healthy margin for improvement.

Posted by: Karin Rogers | Feb 1, 2005 9:59:21 PM

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