The CEOs have left Davos, with a number of Presidents and Prime Ministers, too, civil society leaders and even some royalty. Except for the Norwegian Crown Prince, Haakon Magnus, few would actually have taken advantage of the winter paradise of the Swiss mountains where Davos is situated. Most would just have seen the beautiful nature from the heated hotel rooms behind glass windows, on TV and postcards, and in coffee table books, where it, perhaps, looked even more magnificent than reality.
Being a Norwegian myself, I know that it is, indeed, magnificent both in ‘reality’ and ‘virtual reality’. Besides, the whole atmosphere in a winter resort is another thing. Breathing the mountain air, walking or skiing in the prepared tracks, or just be outdoors for a few hours a day, yes, rapped in warm clothes, would be great. And then they would feel they “deserved” to enjoy indoor activities afterwards. Many may come mostly for that; the heated swimming pool, the massage parlour, the restaurants and bars, with or without alcohol and dancing bands, or just a quiet talk in a relaxing atmosphere at the fire place in the evening. Life cannot be much better, especially if somebody else pays. The Swiss mountain resorts are not cheap in normal times and then we can just guess what it would be when the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting is on, and that is what the Davos summit is actually named.
But then when the dust settles, or paying heed to the local context, we should say, when the snow settles, when the Mercedes Benz cars have driven off with the world leaders, when the TV cameras have been switched off and the famous anchors are back on dry city tarmac again, and when the functionaries and secretaries have put their mobile phones on silent, yes, then we can ask: What did really come out of this year’s Davos summit? Was it all worth it?
The short answer is that very little came out of it. Whether it was still worth it is another thing, and it, probably, depends on whom we ask and if it was all free for them. They would consider the ideas generated, the marketing made of themselves and their company or country, the contacts renewed and new established, and so on. Yes, as a social scientist (and a socialite), I would certainly agree that all this is useful. And the Davos summit is for the rich, let me add, not rich and idle, but ‘rich and busy’. Also, the elite need a few days to meet their peers in a retreat atmosphere. And if they are not quite in the top class, then it was, probably, a boost to their image.
This year’s theme was more intellectual than usual. It was, perhaps, a bit tricky, especially for CEOs and even for politicians. It was meant to be a debate about the future of the world’s economic system and a search for new models. Professor Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, said that capitalism is outdated. It was founded at a time when capital was in short supply. Today, it is ‘talent’, he said. He is not against capitalism, but it must serve the public interest, he underlined. That simply means that we need more control and regulations, if you ask me.
It, probably, means higher tax for the wealthy, not only those who receive a pay check and are easy to track down. It means everyone who has a decent income. In Pakistan, all the pillars of society would have to contribute quite differently - yes, the rich of course, but the middle classes too. Traders and all others in the private sectors would also have to pay more. And, obviously, the public sector would have to become better in utilising the money, with less corruption and higher quality of services. Except for the Pakistan Post, I cannot offhand think of any other excellent public service. Yes, I know I am unfair, but as compared to Norway, where all the good schools are government schools, all the good hospitals are government hospitals, and so on, Pakistan has a long way to go, and America has a long way to go. It is a fact that the private capitalist sector needs good public services, notably workers with good education and creative thinking, and healthy and secure workers, who don’t have to worry about their medical bills and can focus on their job.
In Norway and the rest of Scandinavia, we all know that our tax money is made good use of. And I think that many people are even proud of paying high tax. They want to pay back to the community and country, which have made it all possible for them. There is a contract between the people, the government and the private capitalist sectors. It must be fair play for all, and everyone has a chance to take part in the public debate about their town and city. They can serve on the local councils and numerous interest and professional organisations, labour unions and employers associations, and so on.
Professor Schwab, probably, wants the future of capitalism to operate under such conditions as those of the Scandinavian welfare States and the well regulated private-public partnerships. He did not say it, but it is my assumption! True, Scandinavia may be over-regulated, but it works well. Few countries are as innovative and productive as those very countries.
I remember that a few years ago, it was claimed that nowhere else is it so easy to establish a private company as in Norway - and once that was done, it would be expected that you played by the rules. And part of that would also be that many some “dreaming capitalists” could not make it in the private sector, but at least their ideas were tried and they were given a chance. Remember, too, that most successful capitalists and founders have had many, many failures before they succeed.
Professor Schwab wants the political leaders and the CEOs to develop a long-term vision of how development should be. Secondly, he wants more values and social responsibility from everybody’s side. And, thirdly, he wants the leaders in the private and public sectors to find solutions to the current and immediate problems. He has become impatient because of the slowness in finding ways out of the economic and financial crisis and recession in the West. Within the Euro Zone, there is no solution in sight for Greece and many other countries, which have lived over their means, and the stronger economies have become strong partly because they have sold goods to those who could not afford it. So, they would all have to pay for the mess of correcting their past mistakes.
Would it be the political leaders or the CEOs that can steer their countries and the world on the right course, out of economic crisis and recession? I believe they will have to work together. Yet, I also believe that it is the politicians that should have the upper hand. Obviously, they have been elected by the people to their jobs. The CEOs have only been appointed by their boards, and, to some extent, approved by their shareholders. They may be good at running their companies. And many are great in their jobs of making money, which is the bottom line of what they do. But don’t expect them to have comprehensive visions. That is contrary to their jobs. And don’t expect that their self-regulatory systems and corporate or social responsibility will go very far. Politicians are still needed!
But the politicians must also work more with the intellectuals, social scientists and other professionals and experts, without making the world into a meritocracy, a world ruled by the talented and educated, because it is ordinary people that must have the final say. After all, development is not for the CEOs and other leaders, who flew first class to the Davos summit, and not for economists and academicians. Development is for ordinary people. And we are all ordinary in societies with equality - the good societies. Don’t you agree? Well, if you don’t, then you can only belong to the few born with a silver spoon in your mouth, or maybe you are a self-made millionaire. But even so, the world would become better for you, too, if you climbed down from the shoulders of the workers whose sweat and labour you benefit from. As we all know, it is not only the oppressed that benefit from equality. It is also the oppressor. However, the Davos summit would not have gone deep into such “details”.
The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist based in Islamabad. He has served as United Nations specialist in the United States, as well as various countries in Africa and Asia. He has also spent a decade dealing with the Afghan refugee crisis and university education in Pakistan.