THE BLOG
01/27/2006 12:07 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Davos 2006: Make CARING about poverty... history?

Last year, it looked like the World Economic Forum was finally taking its potential for doing good in the world seriously. And that was really nice, while it lasted.

When the world's business, political and cultural elite gathered for the closed-door annual meeting at Davos in 2005, they discovered an unusual program; it was explicitly designed to spark and channel an outpouring of concern about global issues.

Business matters were put second. Conference planners foregrounded the need for corporate leadership in confronting AIDS, global warming and poverty. Founder Klaus Schwab told everyone who would listen that he wanted the WEF to be 'relevant' to the pressing concerns of the world.

Instantly, last year's gathering morphed into a virtual love-fest. Everybody from Bill Gates to a parade of heads of state (Blair, Schroeder, Chirac, former president Clinton) were falling over each other. Each was vying to be seen as the most committed to helping Africa and the global poor.

Celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Richard Gere, Lionel Richie, Chris Tucker and others were on hand, cheering the new energy and direction. And rocker-statesman Bono was the preeminent and defining presence, ushering things along with skill and style.

As a result, Davos 2005 gave a huge and decisive boost to last year's successful efforts to cancel signficant African debt. Ironically, the world's rich were the first one's who caught the bug in 2005 to 'Make Poverty History.'

Of course, a few critics at the time sniffed at the notion that the world's business leaders and heads of state should convert the WEF into some sort of corporate-led 'world parliament' -- and then unilaterally dictate the agenda. Some questioned the level of true commitment, beneath the rhetoric.

But on the whole, the idea that the WEF was going to harness its considerable power for good was welcomed and widely celebrated. The tough issues of poverty and global warming were on its center stage, for the very first time.

Well, so much for all that. At this year's confab, loving care for Africa is OUT. Happy new year! Anxious hope about Asia is IN. Now, pass the bubbly.

You could tell that last year's egalitarian chic had been given the old 'heave-ho' from the very first day. Last year, when world leaders made their bold, bright promises, they stood before popping flashbulbs and beneath floodlights on the legendary Congress Hall stage. The entire hall was full to overflowing. And the world media scribbled down and beamed out every word and utterance.

This year, WEF conference planners scheduled the long-awaited follow-up session, to announce the outcomes of last year's highly-trumpeted efforts. And where was this grand, culminating event held? Way down deep in the bowels of the Congress Centre. In an obscure and tiny committee room. In the wee hours of morning. With no world leaders or big media to be found.

A few minor players just presented a list of results (essentially a mixed bag), to a small handful of attendees. Immediately afterwards, Davos rocketed on with a full-blast, four-day agenda that has almost never again mentioned either Africa or the global poor.

To get a sense of how much last year's high hopes have curdled, witness the role and fortunes of actress Sharon Stone. Last year, the movie star took center stage by spontaneously calling upon all WEF attendees to reach into their purses and wallets. She wanted to pile up a million dollars on the spot, saying it was time to help Africa 'right now - TODAY!' Her name and image were then splashed across newspapers and websites: a plucky celeb, charging the world stage, leading the super-rich to stand up for the poor and downtrodden.

At the time, many CEO's were happy to tell the sexy star that they would support her effort. But in the end, those pledges were more eagerly made, than finally honored. So WEF staff had to struggle through the year, trying to get WEF members to write their promised checks. The final tally apparently came up woefully short. And this year, Ms. Stone didn't even bother to show up.

I fear that the Sharon Stone scenario is a sign of things to come, for all the promises made to Africa's poor last year at Davos and (later) by the G8.

Last year's do-gooder frenzy at the WEF may go down in history as just another part of the overall "Bono effect" on 2005. U2's lead singer got everybody from the White House to the G8 to the WEF to deal with the issues of global poverty, at least temporarily. But even his considerable energies have their limits.

To his credit, both Bono and (fellow true believer) Angelina Jolie are here again this year. Both are plugging away passionately on the causes to which they have committed themselves. Though it was convened far from the main stage, Bono helped to lead a session on Africa that was well-attended and lively. He still had a few big guns alongside him: e.g., Britain's Gordon Brown, the World Bank's Paul Wolfowitz (boo!) and Nigeria's president.

Additionally, quieter efforts continue to move forward, sparked by the spirit of 2005. For instance, various positive initiatives have been taken up by the WEF's Young Global Leaders (the unfortunate name given to the participation track for many of us under 40). With the encouragement of Nicole Schwab, founding director of YGL and daughter of Klaus, real progress is being made on issues ranging from climate change, to human dignity, to Pakistani relief. And there are other ongoing WEF initiatives, some aimed to boost aid, trade and debt relief for the global poor.

But if the fundamental WEF 2006 agenda is an indication of elite class sentiment (as it usually is), campaigners for Africa have real cause for concern. The many promises that organizers won at last summer's WEF and G8 gatherings could easily evaporate -- just as easily as the pledges that those business leaders made to Sharon Stone. There has been no powerful reiteration or restatement of those commitments at this year's gathering.

From the grassroots activists to the elite halls of power, all people of conscience have a duty to rally around the goal of "making poverty history." But based on the "let's move on" tone at the WEF this year, I believe that activists globally must redouble efforts throughout 2006, just to secure last year's gains.

Let's get started. Because if we choose to rely solely on the fads, whims and promises of the global elite, I guarantee you this: CARING about poverty is the only thing that is going to become history.