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Did anything that matters (to the rest of us) happen in Davos?

Davos, World Economic Forum
World Economic Forum

Somehow, I was not invited to the prestigious and exclusive World Economic Forum in Davos this year.

Many other members of the media were there along with the corporate executives, politicians, celebrities, cautiously happy bankers, an anxious Shimon Peres complaining that the world is becoming ungovernable and some topless Ukrainian women protesters who were there but not invited. Among the missing (besides me) were top officials from the Obama Administration and a strong sense of moral purpose, or much purpose at all. To wit:

The Economist said Pretty Much No One Believes in Davos anymore, adding in a different column this observation:

“Ordinary folk trust Davos Man no more than they would a lobbyist for the Worldwide Federation of Weasels.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported on the World Economic Forum’s Big, Unintelligible Ideas, noting that some of the most powerful people in the world have gathered to address questions and concerns of global consequence:

Sadly, those questions include head-scratchers like “how can jazz serve as a strategic model for diplomacy, leadership, collaboration and innovation?” While they mull that one, the world waits with bated breath to see what truths the forum will carry down from the Alps.

Finally, Foreign Policy gets blunt in Ski Camp: Does Davos Still Matter? by saying:

On the face of it, Davos doesn’t seem to make much sense.

But still, folks like Bill Gates, NY Times columnist Tom “the world is flat” Friedman, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Jordan’s Queen Rania were there, talking about what to do about poverty.

So, does Davos matter?

As much as I like to poke fun at the rich, famous and self-important, I think maybe it does.

As this article in the Financial Times notes, very little attention at the WEF gathering in Davos is given to poverty. But there was some and the forum featured in the video above showed it was hardly a side session. Bill Gates always comes to Davos to talk about poverty and that, at the very least, gets people to listen.

At the panel in the video above, the point of the discussion was the Millennium Development Goals, 8 priority areas aimed at reducing global poverty and suffering, on how to come closer to achieving them by the target date of 2015 – and what to focus on beyond then.

“It’s fantastic how successful the Millennium Development Goals have been,” said Gates, noting that part of the success comes from simply setting simple, clear goals. “It’s during this period we’ve improved the human condition faster than ever before.

In 1990, he said, 12 million children died every year and by 2015, despite the increase in global population, child deaths worldwide will be below 6 million. “So that’s a 50% reduction.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also praised the progress made so far, but noted that much remains to be done if the international community wishes to celebrate in 2015. “Progress is uneven.”

The needs for good governance, for lack of corruption, for human rights protections were raised at the Davos panel. Rwandan President Paul Kagame quietly but fairly directly challenged the recent claims that his much-vaunted leadership has a few elements of corruption and authoritarianism. “Who has the right to define human rights? … There are some gray areas.”

When one person asked why we should provide aid to countries or governments engaged in activities we disapprove of, Helene Gayle, head of CARE International, urged the audience not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

“These are tough issues and they should be debated … we need to push ourselves,” Gayle said. “We all want to have a more equal and just planet … At the end of the day, if were able to end extreme poverty that will go a long way toward improving human rights and social justice.”

So does it matter, these high-minded discussions? I think it does make a difference. A number of major global health and poverty mitigation schemes have been launched at Davos over the  years. The message Gates brings every year is that the rich and powerful are obligated to look upon the problems of the poor, and to take action. It’s a message that seems to be sinking in, even if still has a hard time competing with the focus on boosting financial markets or rubbing shoulders with movie stars.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was also in Davos, or at least that’s what this video made it look like (I wasn’t there, you’ll recall, so I can’t confirm his presence).

Stiglitz didn’t mince words about poverty. He wants the public to understand that poverty, today’s growing gap between the rich and poor, is not an accident or natural consequence of an imperfect world like infectious disease or some such.

No, Stiglitz says, poverty and inequality is to a large extent created by our laws, regulations and human institutions — by many of the powerful people gathering in Davos, in fact. Inequality is structural, he says, and we can either continue to live within this increasingly fragile structure of growing inequity or deliberately work to close the yawning gap between the rich and poor.


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.