The Davos Inflection

01/24/2017 02:52 pm ET
© World Economic Forum

2017 could mark the year of ‘The Davos Inflection’, where the World Economic Forum helped usher in the transformation of ‘Davos Man’, ‘The Davos Consensus’ and ‘The Party of Davos’, despite global expectations, into something genuinely better.

But to fathom the magnitude of this inflection, it is critical to not only recognise its history, status and potential convergence, but also see how it is connected.

Fifty years ago, China commemorated the end of the first year of its Cultural Revolution. A 14-year old boy, Xi Jinping, would witness his father being jailed under that Revolution the following year. He would, in decades, become the leader of the Communist Party at the Zhongnanhai and, in 2017, the first Chinese President to address Davos in its 47-year history.

In his address, President Xi not only defended globalisation, but distinguished himself as an ardent advocate of global convergence. He also wished the world a Happy Chinese New Year, marking the Year of the Fire Rooster. This was notable, as in many traditional cultures, the rooster’s crow acts as an alarm clock: a global wake-up call.

Contrast China’s presence at Davos, with a hundred-plus delegation, and the polarisation of the incoming and outgoing U.S. Administrations. In the 44th U.S. Administration’s final public speech, outgoing Vice-President and 2020 Presidential Candidate, Joe Biden, openly attacked Russia’s policies under the neo-Tsarist leadership of President Vladimir Putin, a century after the Russian Empire’s collapse.

The incoming U.S. Administration could not be more misaligned. It had declined to send anyone to Davos and it’s not surprising why. The new U.S. Presidential Senior Counsellor, Steve Bannon, believes what binds the global “centre-right populist movement” is its opposition to “what we call the party of Davos.”

On January 20, the 93-year old U.S. diplomatic veteran Henry Kissinger spoke via video-link to Davos about the inauguration, but with no one from the new administration present. Then, a century after the inauguration of Wilson, eighty years after Roosevelt, sixty years after Eisenhower, fifty years after Reagan, forty years after Carter, twenty years after Clinton, Donald Trump became the 45th U.S. President - with his inaugural address co-authored by Bannon.

On Europe, where Davos is located, 2017 marks 60 years since the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC), the European Union’s (EU) predecessor, a half–century since the UK’s application for EEC membership and three decades since the Single European Act to create the single market.

Despite this history, the British Prime Minister Theresa May at Davos delivered an exemplar speech in cognitive dissonance: speaking of “a Global Britain” that wished to enter into global free trade agreements, whilst pursuing a policy to abandon the world’s largest single market. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London with an economy generating over 30% of the UK’s GDP, said at Davos that May’s Brexit plans could rip Great Britain apart, 65 years after Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.

On the topic of poverty, people and planet, in 1927, the world population reached two billion. In 1987, it reached five billion. Today, it stands at 7.5 billion. The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave his first global speech beyond the UN to Davos, with critical perspectives to reform the UN, to solve and prevent conflicts and crises, and the role of business in the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs).

The charity Oxfam disseminated a message on the eve of Davos that just eight men own the same wealth as half the world. Whilst it may have highlighted global income inequality, it could also inadvertently constituted an unwarranted ad hominem attack on those most involved in global philanthropy. For example, Bill Gates, who attended Davos, is one of more than 150 billionaires who has signed the Giving Pledge, committed to giving more than half of his wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during his lifetime or in his will.

But it was valuable in instigating a much-needed debate at Davos and beyond: who really are the privileged and the genuinely impoverished? What are their rights and responsibilities? When are the privileged recognised to have not only discharged their responsibilities, but gone far beyond them? An answer may lie in determining who can be characterised as living in global extreme poverty.

According to the World Bank, in 1990, nearly two billion people, representing 37.1% the world’s population, lived in global extreme poverty. That means over 60% did not. In 2015, nearly 700 million people, representing 9.6% of the world’s population, lived in global extreme poverty. That means over 90% did not. To be part of the wealthiest half of the world's adult population today, would require having U.S. 3,210 dollars in hand, minus debts.

Under the Giving Pledge, those 150-plus billionaires have pledged over half their wealth. The question than arises for the 90 percent of the planet not in global extreme poverty – what responsibility do we have to pledge and pay a proportion of our wealth to help the genuinely impoverished?

At Davos 2017, the most memorable experience for participants was the harrowing simulation, ‘A Day in the Life of a Refugee’, as Flickr witnesses. With Guterres himself a former participant, delegates partially experienced for 27 minutes what an average refugee experiences for 19 years – and there are 65 million of them.

With its mission ‘Committed to Improving the State of the World’, and under the theme of ‘Responsive and Responsible Leadership’, Davos 2017 can be defined in three terms: worldview, empathy and the counter-narrative.

There are who have a worldview to only helping themselves, whilst others are committed to improving the world around them; there are those with aversion for the genuine impoverished, whilst others are empathic and responsive; and there are those promoting the counter-narrative imperative, where facts based on truth, and the desire to do good, helps to inform policy. The Davos Human of Tomorrow, therefore, can be said to emerge not by having walked a mile in a person’s shoes, but by only spending 27 minutes in them.

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