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Davos agenda this year: rethink, redesign, rebuild

business Updated: Jan 26, 2010 21:28 IST
Nik Gowing

It is always the most intense of pressure-cooker atmospheres. Sleep is at a premium. Each day is full on, from the first breakfast with a corporate leader at 0600 to the final ‘night cap’ with a prime minister or president at midnight. Even in six days there is never enough time to meet and discuss.

Yet without fail, in all 15 years I have attended the World Economic Forum, I depart energised.

It is about who you meet and hear, often with the most senior of world figures. Most important are the usually troubling cutting edge global issues that are highlighted and debated.

Firstly I benefit personally. Then the BBC World News audience benefits from the most up-to-date of insights that are translated into the interviews and reporting.

Mobile phones mean and 24/7 connectivity means that long gone is the original spirit of a retreat away from the daily corporate and political grind in a restful town of smart hotels and sanatoria.

An enormous WEF staff takes a year to plan Davos. A gruelling programme of regional summits and meetings every few weeks contributes to the process. Vanity and self importance mean a good number of the highest profile global political figures and corporate power brokers demand to be there. But many others have to be worked on using all powers of persuasion and negotiation.

What will Davos 2010 be about?
I can’t predict. But there is a theme to the 500 sessions and multitude of bilateral or multilateral meetings. The near catastrophic global economic catastrophe has exposed frailties and disfunctionalities in the systems we all take for granted. Up for debate is the need to rethink, redesign and rebuild.

Two weeks before Davos, a WEF-coordinated analysis confirmed the level of risk in all parts of the world.

There is the possibility of an asset price collapse, a fully-fledged sovereign debt crisis and a slowdown in China’s economic growth because of its ‘unbalanced growth trajectory’. The reason is the new massive debt levels — especially in the US and UK — that were created to save the world’s economy in the past 18 months.

Then there is spiralling health and social costs as the number of cases of Alzheimer’s and diabetes proliferate. And underpinning all this is something even more profound.

Two thirds of 130,000 respondents to a Facebook poll for Davos believe there is now a global crisis of ethics and values. Central to the disenchantment is the corporate world at the heart of the Davos core mission.

There is a trust deficit and general disgust at the lack of a business ethic that is driven by values instead of profit.

Two thirds of respondents asked why those in business do not apply the same values in their professional lives as they do in their private lives.

A central challenge for Davos 2010 will be to define a new value framework that could strengthen economic and social welfare, mitigate global risks, address systemic failures, build effective institutions and enhance overall our sense of security.

It is a brutal challenge, and it must be asked how many global leaders really have a visceral interest in moving to action rather than just being seen to debate it. In the pre-Davos week, bankers were once again under fire for the size of bonus pools.

President Obama built on the G20 Pittsburgh principles by announcing his $117bn levy on banks. “We want our money back and we’re going to get it” because of the “massive profits and obscene bonuses” when compared to the suffering of average Americans.

It prompted even Klaus Schwab, who created the Davos forum 40 years ago and is now its executive chairman, to take the risk of warning many of the major corporates who fund the WEF that there is a "breakdown of values".

Schwab warns of an entrepreneurial system that is becoming "perverted" because "management decision-making processes are
decoupled from the responsibility of managers for their own risk-taking".

The purpose of an enterprise to create foods and services for the common good has been replaced "by a purely functional enterprise philosophy aimed at maximising profits in the shortest time possible with the (sole) aim of maximising shareholder value time. It is only a functioned "profit-generating machine' with no community responsibilities.”

From the creator of a business forum, this is a swingeing indictment, especially when he warns that "there is a real danger that the financial and economic crisis will develop into a social crisis" and that "difficult times lie ahead".

Nik Gowing is Main Presenter - BBC World News