After four days on the magic mountain, did the global elite improve the world?

From Bono to Bill Gates, the summit focused on tackling the big issues

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, speaking during a panel session on day four of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, speaking during a panel session on day four of the World Economic Forum in Davos. Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

 

As the Davos crowd descended the magic mountain yesterday, did the 44th annual meeting get any closer to its lofty ideal of “improving the state of the world”?

Most attendees agreed that, with the euro crisis in abeyance if not yet fully solved, this year’s World Economic Forum (WEF) offered a chance to discuss other issues just as pressing as the world’s finances.

Oxfam got in early with a hair-raising report pointing out that half of humanity possesses as much wealth as the richest 85.

It was a masterful stroke of lobbying that set the tone for the subsequent days. Like the battles against climate change or extreme poverty before it, there is now every chance that the inequality issue has finally taken root in the global elite debate.

Attending the World Economic Forum is both an appealing and appalling experience. It’s most easily compared to an exhausting film festival, with lectures and workshops on offer instead of films in the windowless Davos conference centre.

The novelty of seeing so many familiar faces in a small place soon wears off, as does any trace of glamour during a punishing four-day triathlon of meetings, networking and slaloming on icy pavements.


Positive buzz
This year’s Irish attendees, from Bono to Mary Robinson, Peter Sutherland to Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, all picked up on a positive buzz about Ireland while Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan ensured their message of Ireland’s recovery also flagged the outstanding legacy debt issue. The direct, high-level access Davos offers is the WEF’s true value for Ireland.

“I like Davos probably a lot more than I should,” confided Bono before dashing off to another meeting. Pat Cox, currently a European Parliament envoy to Ukraine, is less enamoured, calling it “ego speed-dating”.

Another Irish Davos regular, Mary Robinson, has mixed views. Though no fan of Davos in January she concedes it is the only place she can get into one room, for one hour, once a year, all the people she needs to underline how climate change is hitting the world’s most vulnerable people.

Davos is an easy target for cynics who say that asking the world’s business elite to share their wealth seems as likely as asking turkeys to vote for Christmas.

Walk around Davos for a week, though, and you soon notice that the most admired people, the ones everyone wants to hear speak, are the ones actually doing good works.

Bono attracts brickbats at home, yet there was a near stampede to get into his Davos session. Perhaps many only wanted to see the U2 singer.

They did, and they also got an engaging and witty hour from the Irish campaigner on why new UN goals to tackle poverty, disease and infant mortality are not just necessary, but doable.

Similarly, Bill Gates returns annually to ram home the message that his most rewarding role in life wasn’t inventing Windows but using the fortune it created to fight HIV/Aids, malaria, world hunger and child mortality.


Pope’s impact
Pope Francis wasn’t even in Davos yet left delegates thinking with his remark: “l ask you that humanity is served by wealth, not ruled by it.”

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, a Davos regular for more than a decade, said he lost track of the people who came up to him to congratulate him – both on Ireland’s economic recovery but also on Pope Francis.

“They admire his business acumen, for making simple but far-reaching decisions – like not moving into the papal residence,” he said. “They see how making simple, sensible decisions can completely change the atmosphere, like a good CEO would do.”

Even if appeals to conscience fail, experienced Davos campaigners know how to strike business leaders’ Achilles heel: the insecurity of missing the next big thing.

Whether it is mobile internet or tackling preventable disease, you can engage the masters of the universe by playing on their fear of missing out and being shafted by a younger executive who seizes the initiative.

It may sound naive or cynical to expect four days in Davos to trigger a mass Saul-to-Paul conversion. Many of the WEF’s 2,500 movers and shakers are irredeemably selfish and beyond help.

But not all are and, short of abolishing capitalism and eating the rich, Davos offers at least the chance of a world evolution rather than revolution in elite thinking.

“I know there are people out there in the audience who are the ones f**king over the world,” said one outspoken Irish attendee. “But maybe I can reach them and change their mind on something.”

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