01/26/2012 11:14 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2012

Jasmine Whitbread: Will Inequality Finally Top the Agenda At Davos?

As the global elite gathers for the World Economic Forum this week, the "Occupy" igloos popping up around Davos, Switzerland should serve as a great visual reminder that inequality can no longer be ignored.

For the last several years I ticked the box "Inequality" in the pre-Davos survey checking out what participants are most concerned about -- while fervently wishing (though doubting) it would then appear as a major trend in the summarized results. Before and after the crash of 2008, other issues topped the agenda, but last year, for the first time, a majority of invitees shared disquiet about the rising levels of inequality in the world. Of course, this might be because the captains of industry and world leaders attending were probably not the ones dutifully filling out surveys, but still...

Last year was also the first year that an issue more squarely in the sights of global development organizations -- cutting maternal and child mortality rates -- finally made it to the main stage (the norm being that health, education, and poverty discussions take place in the margins). It was great to see government and business leaders pounding fists over real life-and-death issues that affect millions of too-often-unheard women and children at the bottom of the economic scale. This helped set the agenda for the win later in the year, when funding pledges for the (at-the-time-ailing) Global Alliance on Vaccines and Immunization actually exceeded the target. And that primed the pump for a much-needed push toward universal coverage to guard against killer diseases such as measles, even in the poorest communities.

At the same time, it was disappointing how poorly the world's elite grasped the significance of what was then unfolding in Tunisia. I recall the words of a young Iranian-American woman I met, who promised that this was the kick-off and that momentum was building right across the Arab world -- but no one was listening to her then. Given the tumultuous year that followed, it's no surprise that the theme for this year's forum, "The great transformation -- shaping new models," virtually admits that last year's challenge to agree on "shared norms for the new reality" was pretty much overtaken by events.

In the run-up to this year's conference, the issue of inequality has gone mainstream in a big way -- at least it seems that way in London, where the media, the politicians, and even some brave bankers are vying to respond to the sense of injustice and inequality permeating the economic gloom. But will this translate in the global arena? Despite the Occupy movement, the discourse was quite different in the United States when I visited last month, and I notice many more U.S. companies signed up for Davos this year, for some reason. Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- those large, emerging economies known as the BRICs -- will see it differently, too. But the truth is, inequality is a major problem in all these countries. And as UNICEF's 2011 report on global inequality demonstrated, "inequality is also strongly associated with political instability."

However, even if the argument to address inequality is well-made at Davos, many will argue that the priority has to be growth, and that development assistance can't be afforded in a downturn, or that increased domestic investment in social sectors needs to wait for growth. I'll be arguing for health and education investments in the next generation, not just as a moral obligation or a political necessity but because it's smart economics. The evidence is there: between 30 and 50 percent of Asia's growth between 1965 and 1990 has been attributed to improvements in reproductive health and to reductions in child mortality and fertility rates, and malaria alone is estimated to cost Africa $12 billion a year in lost revenue. It's one thing when Save the Children makes this argument, but fortunately, an increasing number of business leaders are getting behind the message. They are responding to what their employees and customers are looking for: a more holistic interpretation of their mission and a more intuitive sense that building a fairer world has got to be good for business.