Davos Diary, Day 6: Parting thoughts
December  31,  2012

Further proof that blogging is injurious to your plans to enjoy Davos: Having sent off my previous post after 3 a.m., I awoke too late to show up at a UNICEF panel with the former child soldier Ismail Beah, whose best selling memoir has just come under attack from a section of the Australian media. Last night, with my blogging duties in mind, I managed to forget the Google After-Hours Party, a much sought-after event where the likes of Bono, Bill Gates, and Tony Blair hobnob with the regular pass-holders. So this will definitely be my last post: In future years, if I return, it will be to enjoy myself fully rather than enlighten the cognoscenti.

The last full day of the Forum, Saturday, began to show a slight slackening of the pace, as many attendees started bidding farewell to Davos. (The official closing is on Sunday, with a final session expected to attract so few that it has been shifted from the plenary Congress Hall to a smaller room, and a lunch in the mountains, both of which are likely to be feel-good events and neither of which I intend to blog about.) There was a strong session on the global economic outlook, which nonetheless only confirmed that the outlook is mixed and that economic forecasting is usually slightly less reliable than meteorology.


FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

I attended one of the prestige private events, a lunch with the Japanese prime minister (who had flown down to Davos in the midst of a regular session of his country’s parliament, the Diet, something that in the previous 37 years had only been done once by any of his predecessors). But the number of empty seats at the half-dozen tables around the PM testified to the declining salience of Japan, a country that two decades ago was seen as the world’s economic powerhouse and, bluntly, no longer is.

Otherwise, it was a day of conversations—some accidental, some planned—with a host of friends from the multilateral world: Juan Somavia, the head of the International Labor Organization, EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson, Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo of the Yale Center on Globalization, and my old U.N. colleagues Zohreh Tabatabai and Nick Van Praag. Talking to these dedicated servants of the international system was itself a reminder of how little Davos had focused this year on multilateral institutions, once seen at the Forum as the foundation of global cooperation and now largely treated as somewhere between an irrelevance and an afterthought.

So, how would I wrap up this week’s experience of Davos? A few observations, not meant to be comprehensive: 

  • The Forum remains, above all, a networking event. People come to meet and be met, and officials as well as executives expressed satisfaction with the large number of private and “bilateral” meetings they were able to hold in Davos. By this yardstick, the Forum was a success—as it always is.

  • The panels were, as usual, of varying quality, with world-class speakers and a few slightly off their game. The scheduling—a huge challenge—meant that no one could really attend everything they’d have liked to, because each interesting panel clashed with another interesting panel.

  • Some of the topics chosen were of limited interest, and some of the omissions surprising ones. There was surprisingly little discussion of U.S. politics in a presidential election year—and few American political figures were present. The first few days, thanks to the gyrations in the financial markets, prompted an excessive degree of short-termism in the conversation, which was unfortunate for an event that likes to think of itself as taking the grand and long view of the really important trends in the world.

  • In my opening post, I mentioned I’d pay attention to India. There was an extraordinary number of Indians present. The movers and shakers from the worlds of business and politics ranged from the finance minister to the CEOs of all the top information technology companies. But what struck me was the extent to which India is now taken for granted at Davos, in a good way. There’s scarcely a panel without an Indian on it, and most discussions of world affairs—economic or geopolitical—witnessed several mentions of India. This Forum afforded confirmation, if any were needed, that my homeland has truly arrived at Davos. It no longer needs any special effort to promote itself to this audience. 

  • I also promised to look at the attention paid to poverty and development. Some years ago, a World Social Forum was created as a challenge the World Economic Forum. This was the first year in nearly a decade that there wasn’t a rival gathering proclaiming that “another world is possible.” This is at least partly because Davos has quietly taken on board the same slogan, as this year’s Forum demonstrated. The discussions of development and corporate social responsibility have reached a level of seriousness that can only be applauded by an old U.N. hand like me. Of course, action must follow and results have to be visible, but both are beginning to be seen, and the companies and political leaders at the Forum are in many cases responsible for that positive trend. 

Finally—as the debris of the extensive Bahrain-sponsored lunch is cleared away and preparations begin for tonight’s concert and the black-tie Gala Soirée—it is time to reflect on those peculiar habits of Davos Man (and Woman) that they will have to struggle to shed when they fly away from this snow-capped wonderland.

These include, but are not limited to:

The Davos bend-and-bob: the peculiar movement required to stretch your smart-card badge to one of the ubiquitous scanners that determine whether you can be granted entry, whether you can read your e-mail, and whether you can attend a session for which you may have forgotten to register.

The furtive chest glance: The quick darting movement of the eye toward the dangling badge that sports a participant’s name, which usually precedes a familiar exclamation of pleasure at meeting its wearer, whose identity you had completely forgotten until you saw his or her badge. (Davos is the only place where it is completely socially acceptable, when you meet a woman, to look quickly at her chest first. The operative adverb is “quickly.”)

The wandering eye: This is a particular Davos affliction, which affects those who, within 30 seconds of beginning to talk to you, are already looking over your shoulder to spot someone else in a crowded room who is more useful to talk to.

The insincere promise: This usually consists of promising to get together for coffee with someone you have just run into in a hallway and are not sure you will actually see again before next year’s Davos, when you will make the same promise once again.

The hunched shoulder: This comes from the weight of the documents, newspapers, and summaries of sessions you missed, carried dutifully in those black “World Economic Forum” bags that are so often seen being put through scanners at the fancier international airports.

The empty business-card holder: However many cards you bring, you are guaranteed to run out of them before the Forum runs out of receptions. The only question is when that happens: Some unlucky ones are bereft by Wednesday; others survive until the closing soirée. Mine lasted until Friday, but then I was supposed to be carrying enough cards for the remaining three weeks of my current trip.

Enough amateur anthropology. Now for the real thing—time to don my glad rags and get ready for the Gala Soirée, which begins at 9 p.m. and goes into the wee hours—a veritable smorgasbord of food, drink, music and last-minute networking. Your faithful blogger relinquishes his keyboard at last. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s been a pleasure.

Source: Blogs, ForeignPolicy.com

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