‘Resilience’ Worries at Davos World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum

-Robert Scoble

The 2013 Davos World Economic Forum’s vision, articulated by its founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab in a recent Project Syndicate article, leaves me with a couple furrows on my brow. Not that I am unfamiliar with the rather single-minded nature of the Davos discussion agenda, or with the criticisms that are leveled against the Forum. This time though, the issue with the Forum’s large frame/theme is rather subtle.

There are, we are told, two main objectives to this year’s forum:

First, the economic crisis has created a more defensive, more self-centered, and – at the level of states – more protectionist attitude. Grand unifying visions are missing, and the pressure for separation, not union, continues to increase. This has stalled progress on many of the issues – including reducing carbon emissions, establishing global financial regulatory measures, and concluding the Doha Round of global trade talks, to name a few – that require global attention.

The first objective is then to foster further global cooperation, under the idea that combined solutions (a “grand vision”?) to economic and financial problems are needed to bring the world economy into a new growth dynamic. Discursively speaking, nothing new. The second point is as follows:

The Forum has always promoted the notion of corporate social responsibility – or, expressed differently, of business leaders being accountable not only to their employees and shareholders, but also to their communities and society at large. So, my second objective for Davos this year is for all leaders to recognize that along with their economic responsibilities come moral as well as social obligations.

The second objective is slightly newer (but not really) in that it puts forward a social responsibility for the private sector, specifically mentioning (later on in the text) corporate social responsibility. Ultimately the idea is probably to pose the question of the ill-effects of austerity and adjustment policies in countries hit by the global financial and Eurozone crises.

Objectives Properly Addressed?

The talk always sounds great. But there is no indication that any of this is actually going to happen, beyond words, at Davos. When you look at the response of states and companies to the financial crisis in terms of cooperation (here mainly in Europe) it is clear that not only is there much to be desired, that which is being decided comes from a logic of relative economic influence, political clout (and interestingly enough, discursive identity) within the EU’s echelons of power. The WEF will probably not have an impact significant enough to change the way European countries interact in their own playground.

Second point of worry: even a layperson can see that objective number one is going to overpower objective number two without any special consideration for this latter one. How are French companies coming together with the government and labor to solve competitiveness problems and factory closings? Answer: They’re not. The order of the day, much to the chagrin of French minister Arnaud Montebourg (holder of the most unenviable title of ‘Minister of Industrial Renewal’) is for companies to argue that, affected as they are by the crisis, they have no choice but to lay off workers and have the remaining workforce take on longer or more irregular hours for less pay- or else the company closes up shop and moves to Morocco. The French government has an active hand in promoting these sorts of flexibility deals- anything to put a band-aid on the employment situation. The companies may become slightly more protected, but it’s not at all clear that the workers who get laid off or those who slip into poverty gain much in resilience.

Third point: while corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nifty model which can and has demonstrated that win-wins are possible, most interestingly in developing economies, the question is less if CSR should be promoted, and more how to ensure CSR design that contributes to sustainable development. How to ensure that CSR is carried out in coherence with existing development agenda? Will proper attention be given to the failures and the lessons of profitable but not social viable CSR projects at the forum? This is one point I continue to watch with interest.

It is right to bring resilience to the table- it is yet another way that the traditionally very… economic WEF can inject a little social in its veins.

But in rushing to pose the question of resilience, Davos may have forgotten to ask ‘whose resilience?’

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Helping people or helping to help people?

In which the author discovers sustainable development

One of the things I hear quite a bit from people who are interested in (or indeed, who work in) the nebulous ‘international development’ is about their desire to help people. This has always vaguely bothered me, and while I am still not entirely sure why, I think that I have put my hand on one of the reasons.

Putting people at the center of development is nothing new, but it is a concept that I believe has proven its worth both in policy and in terms of actual effect. This holds across areas, from environmental considerations to industrial policy to security. Besides, if the goal of a country in developing is not the betterment of its people we may as well give up right now.

‘Natural-ness’

The problem for me comes when it is framed as a question of ‘me’, the individual, helping people (usually in other, poorer countries). People and organizations that put forward this idea a little too strongly are perhaps not entirely self-aware as to the development work they do. But if you look at it from a societal level, aid organizations, development programs, people in beige jackets and SUVs are not natural. I’m not at all convinced that they are part of the natural topography of a society. They are tacked on, informed by foreign aid dollars, by policy decided at USAID, at DfID, by global visions for a world without poverty, for xyz development goal, and more. Not that these things can’t be good, not that they can’t be effective; they’re just not natural.

What is natural then? It isn’t as though organizations and systems to help people and solve problems in a society are all unnatural- the state is usually accepted as natural, legitimate. Associations of people in society are natural. Different types of media are natural. These things come out of the natural development of a society and out of a locally-assessed need.

OK, a compromise is needed. We don’t live in the 19th Century where societies can be easily shut off from one another and where identity is a simple question of geography. What moves and contributes to the natural development of a society is not only that which is intrinsic to that society. But it certainly still means a local interpretation of things. That which moves and shapes a society is the collection of people, institutions, ideas and common places whose existence and behavior (on the aggregate) is not predicated on next year’s funding. It seems to me that the state and civil society, but also local organizations, community groups, music bands and others are deeply invested in their society as a whole, and not on whatever development the society may have. They will be around even after a society becomes ‘developed’ enough to see the international aid agencies leave.

Sustainability

Because they make up the society, they are necessary to it. Shouldn’t efforts by those interested in the development of societies be more focused on these sorts of social components? Shouldn’t the help be to make sure that the state, that local government, civil society and businesses be able to effectively deliver better goods and services to the society’s people and guarantee a minimum standard of living? Isn’t this better than coming in and attaching an unnatural extra temporary support beam to the structure?

This is about basic sustainability. Sustainability of development, when it comes from outside the society in question, doesn’t really sound all that sustainable.

‘Inside’ vs. ‘outside’ a society isn’t a distinction between foreign and domestic aid per se, or even one between centrally planned or ‘liberal’ aid- I think this debate comes before Sachs and Easterly. In other words, if the road for developing some dimension of a society is effective with market-oriented, ‘outward-looking’ action, then why not? As long as those in control are the same who make up the society (this would get too long if I got into inequality within a society, so I will leave it at that for now).

Helping Societies help People

Every aid program should contribute to turning the keys of the development they work on over to the people for whom they are working. Of course new ideas can come from people overseas, from people from somewhere else, from people who are just passing through. But I think that they should mold these new ideas into the society they wish to help, through participation, joint brainstorming, ownership and understanding of the implications of their work at all levels.

Sustainable development is not about how best to continue a specific project, and not about how to ensure any one organization’s continued effectiveness. It’s first about how to make sure that the projects that will be worked on are worthy of being continued, and it’s then about asking if society can continue them.

Helping societies to help people seems to me a much more freeing and rewarding goal.

Chris Blattman

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