As performers go to Davos, the circus steals the show

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

The National, January 20, 2012

It is time again for those who think they are members of the global power elite to gather in Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. As it begins next Wednesday, the “95/5 Occupy Davos” crowd will be gathering, too, called in by activists via social media and otherwise by internet. They say they will live in igloos, not hotels.

Also hovering in the wings, either among the WEF attendees or simply “being global” with an internet presence, will be many investors, especially hedge-fund managers and vulture-fund managers. It is a curious three-sided arrangement that I will be interested to watch.

It is plausible that big gatherings really produce only media sound bites for the press, rather than solutions on real issues. I have often wondered what some academics really get out of delivering a paper at a prestigious conference.

Attending one’s theme stream is de rigueur – but no one will be enlightened by these broad cross-discipline discussions. It’s the same at the exciting TED conferences as at the WEF. Huge circuses where, it is suggested, even presidents go to make headline speeches aimed more at their own constituents or for electioneering purposes (via the media) than for the enlightenment of the other people in attendance. Meetings can be too big – or too political.

Consider the G8 group, which had its founding meeting (as the G7 before Russia’s membership) in 1975 in France. The G8 agreed famously, at the Gleneagles meeting in 2005, on a $50 billion (Dh184 billion) aid package for poor nations. Agreed it was, but hardly delivered. That begs the question: what are such meetings for?

Tony Blair, then the UK prime minister, acknowledged the shortcomings of the summit, saying: “We do not, simply by this communiqué make poverty history … the G8 had demonstrated a political will to end global poverty, and to tackle the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.” It was a pretty vacuous statement. Enlarging the circle even more, in 1999 the G8 expanded to become the G20, after the Asian financial crisis.

It was thought that by including all major economies, more inclusive decisions might be made. Whether this is actually the case remains to be seen. The EU is also a big group of many nations and very many people, a huge trading bloc that often needs to create solutions quickly. Only a few days ago, following Standards & Poor’s downgrade of nine European nations’ credit ratings, many voices were urging ministers in the eurozone to “urgently address the issues”.

Not many in the EU wish harm to the euro, but procrastination, and also politicking and electioneering in some states, precludes action. Prime ministers, presidents and chancellors do not rule all by themselves: they act for their governments and thus democratically for their peoples. Each has a regular timetable of meetings and a full programme of parliamentary legislation in their own countries. European issues must be managed on top of these.

And always each of these leaders faces opposition parties sniping that the current government is weak. In today’s economic climate, can the WEF really create a solution for the woes of the EU, or will it produce rhetoric only?

Outdoors at Davos, in the cold, the 95/5 Occupy group will seem to be half jealous of the success of the earlier 99/1 Occupy movement that swept across the globe in recent months. Of course, the original Occupy group had a generalised legitimacy: after all, top bankers and fund managers are partly the cause of the recent financial turmoil.

And now the vulture-fund managers are looking for their next kill by investing in distressed nations. It’s only logical, they say, we are simply maintaining shareholder value (or more precisely, their partners’ payrolls).

Neither the protesters nor the WEF delegates will achieve all that much this time around at Davos. The main meeting is simply too big a circus to agree on detailed issues, although no doubt we will be blessed with a communiqué or two.

What may be better for actual resolution, and is favoured by my own organisation Horasis, is smaller informal groups, abiding by the Chatham House rule (no attribution in the press of the information emerging from the meeting), with plenty of free time for coffee-table discussions. After that kind of process, perhaps we might agree to meet again on actual changes.

The hope at smaller meetings like these is that we participants are not perceived, like the shadowy elite in Akira Kurosawa’s great film Kagemusha, as a hidden puppeteer pulling strings.

Frank-Jürgen Richter is the chairman of Horasis, a global business community. Follow on Twitter @horasisorg