How (ir)relevant was Davos this year?

Well, Bill Gates did get some public attention and additional money for the ongoing global campaign to eradicate polio while hanging out with the rich and powerful at the Swiss ski resort.

Among the other issues discussed by members of the global elite who gathered at the World Economic Forum this year, some pondered the connections between wealth and happiness, finance ministers promised to stabilize the euro, a writer for Forbes attending the invite-only affair complained about being excluded from the inner-inner circle and the Economist’s Matthew Bishop’s described playing at being an oppressed refugee. Said Bishop:

“The activity was worthwhile, stimulating serious conversations about how to address a serious problem.”

At first, I read that as “simulating” a serious conversation since Bishop made no mention of perhaps the world’s most serious problem — the turmoil rocking Egypt and much of the Arab world.

The unrest in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the Arab world is as much about the global economic situation as it is about freedom, democracy and politics. And instability in the Middle East (i.e., oil) is certainly of world economic concern.

But the folks at the World Economic Forum were largely silent on Egypt, offering platitudes about economic recovery and, for the most part, awkwardly avoiding commenting about the riots on the Nile.

Even the business publication Investors Daily had to ask “Is Davos relevant?” answering its own question:

As January turns to February Davos men and women, true to the elite vision, are listening to each other expound on what (WEF founder Klaus) Schwab calls “Shared Norms for the New Reality,” an unmistakable reference to the economic downturn….

But in the streets of Cairo, Sanaa and elsewhere in the Middle East, history is being shaped not by Davos Man, but by his near-antithesis.

There are some who think Davos is worse than irrelevant. Economic strategist Umair Haque, writing in the Harvard Business Review, lists Ten Things You’re Not Allowed to Say About Davos. Such as:

The most powerful and influential folks at Davos — the titans of the global economy — probably won’t do anything to heal the world, for the simple reason that because, as things stand, they profit most from its suffering.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.

  • Whether or not Mr. Haque’s article is actually a good one, it must have been a good day’s work by the HBR editor to have publlished it. 20-some years ago some editor at Harvard published my sister’s “Why I Hate the Harvard Business School”. Mary left Harvard with some brief notoriety and her MBA, but did not change the world. That will only happen when enough editors publish enough thorns.

    I must quibble with the assertion that economists traditionally lack “moral compass”. Adam Smith, Malthus, Marx, Keynes and –dare I say?–Krugman strike me as counterexamples, and no one could call them fringe players.

    I have heard that the business schools once stressed social accountablity, but no more. One problem for the Dismal Science is that it is too dismal. Another is, alas, the ease of its conflation with Business.

    Paul J. Bosco

  • Pauljbosco

    The above comment was supposed to be for the Harvard Biz Review article cited at the end of the article. I did not realize which window I had open. Haque’s article, which is not dull, has drawn many interesting comments.

    Nice of you, Mr. Paulson, to mention that Mr. Gales was able to wring some charitable contributions. The rich can be such a force for good. Even if they are buying late-in-life respectability.

    –Paul B.