I've been at Davos since the weekend, talking with people about this year's theme of "Improve the State of the World: Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild." We've discussed topics ranging from sustainability to social welfare to global risk management. But one topic in particular has weighed heavily on everyone's mind during nearly every session: the tragedy in Haiti.
The recovery effort there has driven everyone to focus on discussing these issues not just from a theoretical perch, but from a perspective of how they affect real people's lives - people who are struggling just to make it through the day.
It has also shown just how interconnected everyone is. More than ever, all of us are global citizens. No matter where you live, what happens anywhere in the world has an impact on you, whether it's outsourcing to India, emissions in China or the terrible humanitarian crisis in Haiti.
One concern I've heard expressed repeatedly about the earthquake is that with so much money flowing from so many fronts to aid the search and recovery effort, will there be enough aid for the process of rebuilding Haiti's infrastructure, a project that many estimate could take a decade or more? We've seen in New Orleans how much progress can slow once the camera crews go home and the star-studded benefits stop.
This question also got me thinking about a larger issue: What is the future for the ever-growing number of failed states? There are now 39 of them in the world in regions like the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East. These are places with little or no infrastructure, unstable governments and dysfunctional economies. When one considers that the G20 nations make up 85 percent of global GDP, that means the remaining 170 plus comprise only 15 percent. Perhaps there is a need for a new model of what a state is, as it's unlikely that most of these small states will ever be able to compete successfully on their own. Think about how ineffective the U.S. would be if it were 50 independent states.
The world is trying to help these failed states get on their feet. But it may be that there simply aren't enough resources to go around.
To that end, I've been thinking about what the business world can do. After speaking on panels about gender parity, I'm more convinced than ever that the answer is to provide more opportunities to women. It's certainly no coincidence that nearly every failed state on the list is a traditionally patriarchal society.
Studies have repeatedly found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier and better educated. We've also found that when we give women in emerging markets opportunities to run their own businesses, they gain a newfound confidence that is contagious and quickly passed on to friends, family and neighbors, who start to think "If she can do it, why can't I?"
Even more importantly, these benefits accrue to the next generation. Lower education and employment rates for women and girls have been estimated to hold down GDP by one to two percentage points annually. Without this kind of inside-out economic development, I'm not sure there's any amount of aid that can bring these failed states into the developed world.
One thing I am sure of is that we've run out of time to wait.