Whatever became of the "Davos Man," you know, the kind of prominent individual who was destined to come together in an opulent Swiss resort location and cooperate with other luminaries to iron out the world's problems? Like any other recurring grand gathering it's becoming somewhat less than stellar -- not so much from age but from the loss of promise.
They are the global stars -- politicians, entertainers, corporate leaders and the odd humanitarian -- who delight in the kind of internationalism that, while heady, seems increasingly ambivalent of the national problems faced in most nations. They seek to shape their generation but continue to see their efforts stymied by on-the-ground realities like poverty, environmental degradation, inequality, and lethargic economies. Davos is still the place to be seen, but is less and less heard.
The theme for this year's session is "resilient dynamism." What does that mean exactly? It sounds like something emanating more from a corporate feel-good session than the realities confronting most families, governments, businesses and diplomats around the world today. As more people fall into global poverty it's difficult to see where the word "resilient" applies. And what's "dynamic" about the inability to keep the lid on climate change or the ongoing decline of the democratic franchise? Seriously, wouldn't the word "lethargic" or even "faltering" be more descriptive of past Davos solutions?
I realize that the beautiful spot in Switzerland is where the supposed brightest and best gather for a few sessions, yet the gathered crowd appears to grow more incapable every year at solving the globe's biggest problems. Perhaps the reason is because those gathered are not only intelligent and connected, but are, in fact, incredibly wealthy -- remote and removed from the everyday problems faced by average citizens in both developing and developed nations. There seem to be no effective solutions for growing unemployment, the decline of democracy, the yawning gap between rich and poor, a world financial system seemingly out of control and out of options for renewal, and a world of nation states becoming increasingly frayed at the seams.
The world of the fabulously wealthy and the infinitely networked has never had to live on less than two dollars a day, face homelessness, lack start-up capital for a new business venture, or have to deal with angry citizens who feel their respective governments no longer give heed to their voiced concerns. Even those politicians attending the sessions aren't so much there to find solutions to the renewal of governance as they are to just be there, to be seen, to be relevant, to matter. It remains far more enticing to spend time with the powerful instead of the powerless, the wealthy as opposed to the poor, the beknighted instead of the oppressed, the corporate baron as opposed to the struggling and confused citizen.
This year's session revolves around three imposing challenges: climate change, growth and food security in Africa, and power parity for women -- all noble aspirations. Yet in one form or another, all of these files have been on the Davos agenda since its inception. Bono has always been there to champion Africa; Angelina Jolie has championed women's rights in developing nations; Al Gore has been a rock star at the sessions ever since An Inconvenient Truth.
But in a very real sense these vital categories are getting worse, not better. I have just returned this week from south Sudan, where women gain far less attention and resources than the ever-abiding thirst for newly-discovered oil reserves. Kyoto, Bali, Copenhagen -- all these exotic sounding locations have failed continuously at summoning an effective response to climate change. And the number of desperately poor in Africa have had a few million added to their number in the last five years.
Davos, and venues like it, will continue to amount to little until that one great problem plaguing all the world's present ills is addressed: inequitable wealth. But how can that enter the agenda when the participants themselves are mostly billionaires, or at least millionaires. Would they permit more business regulations, tax hikes, increased ethical accountability when such innovations would dig deep into their own empires? That's just not realistic. They would rather see donations to charitable efforts instead of dedicated taxes for things like carbon emissions or international development.
It is time to address the power and influence of big money if Davos is ever to get its game back. The trouble is that most of the people gathered in Switzerland this week are those that have and control the wealth. Should they desire, they could work effectively with governments to address the planet's abiding challenges, but they would have to sacrifice much of their own holdings if the solutions are to be effective. Until that happens there will be little difference between Davos and a Fortune 500 gathering or the Grammy Awards.