Deflated in Davos? Impressions of economic leaders at work and play

News media have been reporting a deflated mood among the business leaders gathered in Davos for the annual World Economic Forum meeting. Some have even suggested an air of contrition and a bit of hair-shirt atonement, cutting down on the number of parties, ski-outings and suchlike. Perhaps that’s what they have seen and it’s all subjective and relative – but it’s not really what I’ve seen. I wouldn’t say the mood is upbeat, and of course there’s an awareness of the economic crunch all round. But what’s going on is a bit more subtle than mood-swings.

There’s said to be about 2,500 people here, maybe 2,600, which is about the Davos par in recent years and close to what the organisers believe is the optimal figure. So there hasn’t been any great falling away of participation. And most of the parties are still happening. The unrivalled networking opportunities remain.

Two things are different, however. There are more government leaders and ministers than ever before.  Over 40 heads of government and state who have been here include Wen Jiabao, Vladimir Putin, Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Recep Tayip Erdogan,  Shimon Peres and Anders Fogh Rasmussen.  And more business leaders want to meet more government people than ever before – “four times more” demand , according to one of the WEF senior managers (pause for knowing chuckle about why business leaders want to talk with governments so much).

So perhaps that is, in a way, a sign of a slightly deflated mood among business leaders. Even if they are not falling over themselves to say sorry, they seem less full of themselves and of the ability of the private sector and the market to address all issues and solve all problems. Nobody seems to dispute that decisive government action is required – not least on the world economy and climate change – to set a framework within which businesses can then operate .

Though governments are very much in evidence, there have been pull-outs by government figures. President Lula of Brazil chose instead to attend the World Social Forum taking place in his own country. President Sarkozy of France didn’t come, so it is reported, because he didn’t want to be seen hob-nobbing with the very rich. UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband didn’t come because the meeting is all about economics, but new US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and White House Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers didn’t come either, which may be why Alistair Darling from Britain’s Treasury pulled out. Other UK ministers are here, such as Hilary Benn, and for the Conservative opposition David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson have been much in evidence. Gossip says there were other late pull-outs, though you’re never quite sure if they had a firm-ish commitment in the first place.

From pull-out to walk-out, as Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey dramatically left the stage in the closing moments of a meeting on Gaza, at which he was sitting next to Israel’s President Peres. Erdogan received a hero’s welcome when he got back to Turkey, but what actually triggered his walk-out was not what Peres said (though note that Peres is being reported to have called Erdogan soon after the meeting to apologise). What triggered it was that the meeting’s moderator did not want Erdogan (who had spoken already) to take more than a minute or two to respond to Peres’ remarks. It was when the moderator said he wanted people to be able to go and have dinner that Erdogan stood up and walked off.

Mundane though that moment in some ways was, it brought a bigger issue into the light. The general impression is that the WEF organisers this year have emphasised the economy, at the expense of  issues including human rights, corporate responsibility and conflict, peace and security that have previously got more time here. In one way, given the times we are in, it seems absolutely right to emphasise the economic issues; moreover, climate change has not been lost, though development in poor countries has been sliced and diced.

But Erodgan’s irritation about the Gaza discussion is echoed – if more gently – by plenty of other people about other issues. There is a feeling among  Davos participants that if it’s not about business, finance and the economy, then it’s being shoe-horned in, made to fit in around the edges of the main issues. The meetings are too short with too little time for questions and discussion, and, as the Turkish Prime Minister discovered to his chagrin, you have to cut it short so people can get to dinner.

The fact is that while the economic crunch looms over everything, it is not the only thing happening in the world and it is a mistake to focus exclusively on it. And that is true whether you’re thinking about how to organise a complex agenda at an event that is big, complex and, as everyone agrees, frankly somewhat surreal, or about the real world. If business leaders and government leaders focus all their energy and attention on the economy, they may or may not get that right, but what is sure is that they will thereby ignore the rest of the world’s problems, which will escalate if left uncared for.

The difficulty, moreover, is that many participants comment on a shortage of ideas, despite the effort the organisers put into getting a new idea out of virtually every meeting. I was at a meeting last night where somebody said we are all “clueless.” That’s a bit unfair if you look at the climate change discussions. But on the economy itself, there does seem to be a shortage if you look closely.

A taste of this can be seen in a presentation this morning about the need to stimulate a cascade of confidence in the world economy and the conversations that could set it going – six conversations on the topics of coordination and coherence, clarity and communication, control of the contagion, capital and cushioning, credit extension and co-investment, and courage. Six alliterative conversations – yes, and any ideas about the policy that those conversations could produce?

By contrast, at the same meeting, Nick Stern crisply argued that we know how to achieve zero carbon electricity generation, and on the back of that zero carbon ground transport, which taken together and combined with stopping deforestation would get the world most of the way towards the 50 per cent average cut in total global carbon emissions that the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change said is the bare minimum cut the world needs by 2050.

It was a study in contrasts. And since green energy and green ground transport offer business opportunities and therefore can be one of the focal points of renewed economic growth (and are already contained in the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package), perhaps instead of a study in contrasts it should be seen as (prolonging the alliterative articulation) a study in combination, compatibility and complementarity. A study in green.

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