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Davos Disconnects

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Since its inception the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland has attracted an ever-increasing amount of media attention. This year was no exception. Four thousand high-powered business executives, global leaders (presidents and ministers) not to forget celebrities like Matt Damon and Goldie Hawn converged on the exclusive Swiss resort to attend sessions, to wine, to dine, to schmooze, to make deals and to be entertained. Amid the hoopla these "stakeholders" discussed the dangers of technologically induced employment reduction, the possibility of doing business with Iran and the increasing stability of the Eurozone.

This year Davos attendees also discussed the social responsibility of global elites to confront and remedy the persistent presence of income inequality.

Focusing on the Davos debate about the distribution of wealth, Katrin Bennhold of The New York Times quoted Pope Francis, who challenged the attendees to change the dynamic of income inequality.

"The growth of inequality demands something more than economic growth, even though it presupposes it," Pope Francis said in a message read by one of his cardinals at the conference. "It also calls for decisions, mechanisms and processes directed to a better distribution of wealth, the creation of sources of employment and an integral promotion of the poor which goes beyond a simple welfare mentality.

The Pope added, "I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it."

To meet this challenge some of the Davos attendees participated in"hardship" sessions. Katrin Bennhold also described these events.

"... For those wanting to experience real hardship (for an hour or so) there were multiple sessions each day that attempted to simulate what it is like to be a refugee in a camp. During these sessions actors dressed up as soldiers stormed in, pretending to beat up another actor dressed up as a refugee and firing fake gunshots. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook and Peter Brabeck-Letmathe of Nestle were among the executives who participated."

Given the tone and texture of his papacy, it is clear that Pope Francis has direct experience of poverty. Can we say the same for the movers and shakers of the global elite who attended the WEF? How can these economic leaders, the vast majority of whom have little direct experience with economic hardship, have any idea what to do about it? A one-hour radically chic sensitivity session is not likely change a corporate ethos in which the world is ruled rather than served by wealth.

Which leads me to a Davos disconnect -- about assumptions. Global elites tend to look upon the world through economic lenses. This practice makes perfect economic sense, but fails to consider sufficiently, as does Pope Francis and most social scientists, the social dimensions of economic relations. From the beginnings of complex society thousands of years ago, economic and social inequality have been inextricably intertwined. Indeed most of our social systems have been constructed to reinforce social inequality rather than to bridge the gap between the haves and have-nots. There is, after all, a dynamic interplay between economic and social problems. But if your commitment to social responsibility stems from the symbolic convenience of public relations rather than from the texture of lived experience, then economic and social change, if it happens at all, is likely to be superficial.

Which leads me to a Davos disconnect -- about symbolism. On its website the WEF is perfectly clear about its lofty purpose.

"What has remained unchanged since its founding is the Forum's dedication to collaboration among stakeholders, its steadfast adherence to the high-level participation of leaders sharing the Forum's commitment to improving the state of the world, and the Forum's trust in the power of dialogue and exchange based on mutual respect and civility to bridge divides and shape effective solutions to global challenges..."

Dialogue is always good at the WEF or any other forum. But what kind of symbolic message is articulated if the pool of delegates is limited to global elites who attend multiple sessions -- some of which are the aforementioned "hardship" re-enactments -- that are squeezed between wining and dining events at one of the most luxurious resorts in Switzerland? What can Davos debates mean for someone like Hamidou Issa, a man I met during my last research trip to the Republic of Niger in West Africa?. Hamidou Issa and his family live in a single room mudbrick house with a dirt floor. The thatch roof leaks when it rains. He's a farmer who makes $300 a year if he's lucky, which is not enough money to properly care for his children. Hamidou Issa knows about economic hardship. He knows about social inequality. What can a small dose of publicly contoured corporate social responsibility do for his economic and social condition?

As a committed social scientist I am weary of hearing the empty pronouncements from the Davos mountaintop. From that lofty perch it is easy to see a world you already know. Might it not be better for Davos delegates to spend more time among those whose worlds are in desperate states? If that were the case the aforementioned Davos disconnects would be less glaring. If that were the case, WEF dialogues might compel a degree of real economic and social change.

Now that would be a breath of fresh mountain air.