It’s easy to be hard on Davos. After all, the World Economic Forum that takes place in the thin air of this picturesque mountain village each year is Burning Man for the 0.0001 percent. It’s Ego-palooza. It’s the factory where conventional wisdom is manufactured.
How can you not make fun of a place where the very rich get together to talk about the very poor, where hunger is discussed over lavish meals catered by three-star Michelin chefs flown in for the event, and where evening sessions about self-actualization are drowned out by the constant din of communal self-congratulation just for being there? The place is so damned earnest it makes your teeth hurt. It’s as if at each of the many checkpoints through which visitors must pass to get to the events, they are stripped of irony, awareness, or the healthy skepticism with which many of the initiatives being discussed ought to be approached.
After all, this is the place where this year Al Gore and Pharrell came together to promote a climate concert extravaganza to a group of people whose journeys here and home — via corporate jet and convoys of sleek, black sedans — left a long, dark trail of carbon emissions leading to every corner of the globe. It’s where in the name of promoting open exchanges muckety-mucks like Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and their brethren offered canned remarks and were fed softball questions from moderators that neatly sidestepped the toughest problems they face at home — and where, in the spirit of their governments’ attitudes toward a free press, questions from the audience were forbidden. And it is where such orchestrated fake openness (fauxpenness?) is not the exception but the rule.
How can you not laugh a bit at the spectacle of the annual pilgrimage of some of the world’s biggest sinners to be cleansed in the fondue Ganges under the watchful eyes and outstretched palms of the high priests of corporate social responsibility (CSR)? Who says churches don’t sell indulgences any more? This is actually the Church of Indulgences, where a small amount of cash buys enough forgiveness to go on sinning for another year. (And it’s a bargain. The average company spends considerably less than 1 percent of profits on CSR, a fraction of a fraction of a traditional tithe to a more conventional church. Just enough to pay for a coat of fresh paint on the public-facing side of their businesses, to buy a little goodwill from governments and the communities in which they work, and almost always offered in the interest of greasing the political skids for a larger profit-making initiative.)
But stop. While there is plenty to snark about here — and as much that deserves serious scrutiny — one cannot deny that the reasons the critiques about Davos resonate is because there really is such a significant concentration of senior business and government leaders here who are spending a considerable portion of their time together talking about the great issues of the day. They are attending sessions about climate and health and inclusion and education and closing the digital divide. They are looking at regions of unrest and listening to prescriptions for bringing peace to them or prosperity to those in need. Discount it all for the posing and the hypocrisy, blast the program for sounding as if it were written by the slightly dimwitted love child of Arianna Huffington and Jack Welch (Deepak Chopra Welch?), but there are still meaningful discussions going on here. The effect of which is that people who don’t spend enough time talking about the unintended consequences of their actions are actually doing it here. People who are in a position to help are sometimes motivated to help. And in that sense, there’s nothing wrong with having such a place exist, and if we peel back the glittery layers, there’s plenty that is right with the effort.
The secret reality of Davos is not the one that dances in the addled heads of conspiracy theorists. No global plots are hatched here. Nor is it the deal-making capital of the world that the WEF staff would like paying participants to believe it is. (In fact, the most common complaint I have heard over the years — and perhaps more so than ever this year — from the CEOs and government leaders whom I have spoken to is that they wish they knew where the secret backroom where all that deal-making is happening was — but they have yet to find it.)
No, the secret reality of Davos is that it is the world’s biggest, most elaborate, best-funded model U.N. meeting. It is a place where the easy-listening version of policy discussions actually draws people who can make a difference, and every so often, as a result of something they’ve heard here, they actually do. And, as I have noted in past columns like this, that’s to the credit of this nearly half-century-old enterprise. It’s not that it is a hot bed of knowing conniving. It’s actually more that it is a place of nearly cloying and sometimes naive ambitions wrapped in bought-and-paid-for posturing and the desire of everyone present to make a buck.
But for all the good it may do or aspire to do, the World Economic Forum is sowing the seeds of its own destruction with its failure to address more seriously and urgently the issue of inclusion. Some regions of the world — notably Asia and Africa — are grossly underrepresented among the participants. Voices representing the disenfranchised may be hard to find but they are essential to addressing many of the issues being discussed here. But most egregious in my view is the continuing failure to fairly involve the majority population of the planet in these discussions. Davos is a man’s world.
Last year, I wrote a column about Davos called “Waiting for Davos Woman” in which I observed how compromised the meeting was; only 16 percent of its credentialed participants were women. (In some articles, WEF sources said it was 15 percent.) This year, again according to WEF sources, it is 17 percent. While this is the same percentage of women as you will find in the world’s legislatures and slightly more than the percentage you will find on corporate boards, it is not just appallingly low — it is inexcusable. What’s more, the year-over-year progress, despite the drumbeat of Davosian rhetoric about openness and global dialogue, is impossible to defend. The only message sent by such negligible gains is that the issue does not matter enough to the organizers or the sponsors of the event.
It is impossible to argue that the problem is that the event is for CEOs and top government officials and because only a small percentage of big-company CEOs and political leaders are women, the organizers are limited. (According to the organizers, only 30 percent of the attendees are CEOs, and only 2 percent are top government officials.) Further, look at the agenda for the meeting: on issue after issue — economics, politics, health, education, development, climate, combating extremism, stabilizing societies — you can’t have a serious discussion or effectively influence outcomes without including the perspectives of women. Yet, somehow it has apparently just not been important enough to the organizers to go out among the planet’s 3.7 billion or so women and find a couple of thousand more to provide some kind of gender parity at this event where such an action would seem so core, natural, and essential to the World Economic Forum’s stated mission.
Because I believe you cannot conduct constructive discourse on international issues without the participation of women, I recently decided not to speak on any panels that did not include women. I’m not writing this to seek a pat on the back. But because any discussion that does not include women’s perspectives or that reflexively excludes or fails to seek out the women who are leaders in their fields in virtually any and every subject on this agenda will be deeply inadequate and will only compound distortions of gender bias that exist because of our long history of systematic exclusion of women’s views. I’d much rather participate in discussions where the organizers actually demonstrate that they are committed to producing the best possible work product.
I don’t delude myself into thinking that I alone can make a difference, but I was inspired to do it by others and by a little coaxing from some smart and well-intentioned Twitter followers, and my hope is that others with similar views will join in. At Foreign Policy, as event organizers we have embraced a similar commitment to diversity (just as we have to diversity in the views we presented on the web and in print). Not because it is politically correct but because it is our journalistic and intellectual responsibility to offer a full range of views. (And this is not just about gender — it includes other forms of cultural and ethnic diversity as well, all of which are important. But you have to start somewhere, and it seems reasonable to me to start with addressing the grossest of history’s social wrongs, the systematic repression of women by virtually all cultures.)
What I do doesn’t matter. But how high-profile global gatherings like the World Economic Forum choose to act does. It matters a lot. Bringing greater gender balance here would not only improve the discussion and the outcomes it produces, but it would send a powerful message. But it is clear that change will not happen without a concomitant effort to produce it from the event’s sponsors, its paying customers, and its keynote speakers. Companies that recognize a need for fair hiring practices and equal opportunity should send their female leaders here. Sponsors promoting great values should walk the talk. Explain that the failure to fix this issue, the failure to show real progress over the past few years, and the failure to make real balance the goal is inconsistent with who they are and sends a terrible message, and that they simply can’t be associated with this event unless change takes place. Speakers should say they won’t be on panels unless there is balance. Otherwise all are complicit — and with the attention the issue has gotten, they have to be viewed as not only being complicit, but intentionally so.
Like other elements of this strange, wonderful, perverse, and heartening event, the payoff is not in what happens here, but in how it translates into action worldwide. And past decades have proved that when you put powerful people together in a place like this, sometimes such action does happen. If we can get companies to devote even some small share of their profits to the good of their communities, if we can get them to put the environment ahead of the bottom line, surely we can find a way to get them to bring some of the world’s best and brightest who have been excluded, not on grounds of merit or capacity, but by residual historical habit, into the room. After all, it is called the World Economic Forum, and it’s time its participants looked more like the world they are supposed to be improving.