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The Davos inflection

This year could mark the year of “the Davos inflection,” where the World Economic Forum (WEF) helped usher in the transformation of Davos Man, The Davos Consensus and The Party of Davos, despite global expectations, into something genuinely better. But to fathom the magnitude of this inflection, it is critical to not only recognize its history, status and potential convergence, but also see how it is connected.
Fifty years ago, China commemorated the end of the first year of its Cultural Revolution. A 14-year-old boy, Xi Jinping, would witness his father being jailed under that revolution the following year. He would, in decades, become leader of the Communist Party and, in 2017, the first Chinese president to address Davos in its 47-year history.
In his address, Xi not only defended globalization but distinguished himself as an ardent advocate of global convergence. He also wished the world a happy Chinese New Year, marking the Year of the Fire Rooster. This was notable, as in many traditional cultures the rooster’s crow acts as an alarm clock: A global wake-up call.
Contrast China’s presence at Davos with a 100-plus delegation, and the polarization of the incoming and outgoing US administrations. In the outgoing administration’s final public speech, Vice President Joe Biden openly attacked Russia’s policies under the neo-tsarist leadership of President Vladimir Putin, a century after the Russian Empire’s collapse.
The incoming US administration could not be more misaligned. It declined to send anyone to Davos, and it is not surprising why. The new US president’s senior counsellor, Steve Bannon, believes what binds the global “center-right populist movement” is its opposition to “what we call the party of Davos.”
On Jan. 20, the 93-year-old US diplomatic veteran Henry Kissinger spoke via video link to Davos about the inauguration of Donald Trump, but with no one from the new administration present.
Then, a century after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson, 80 years after Franklin Roosevelt, 60 years after Dwight Eisenhower, 50 years after Ronald Reagan, 40 years after Jimmy Carter and 20 years after Bill Clinton, Trump became the 45th US president, his inaugural address co-authored by Bannon.
On Europe, where Davos is located, 2017 marks 60 years since the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (EEC), the EU’s predecessor, a half–century since the UK’s application for EEC membership, and three decades since the Single European Act to create the single market.
Despite this history, British Prime Minister Theresa May at Davos delivered an exemplary speech in cognitive dissonance: Speaking of “a global Britain” that wished to enter into global free-trade agreements, while pursuing a policy to abandon the world’s largest single market.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, whose economy generates over 30 percent of the UK’s GDP, said at Davos that May’s Brexit plans could rip Britain apart, 65 years after Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation.
On the topic of poverty, people and planet, in 1927 the world population reached 2 billion. In 1987, it reached 5 billion. Today it stands at 7.5 billion. New UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres gave his first global speech beyond the UN to Davos, with critical perspectives on reforming the UN, solving and preventing conflicts and crises, and the role of business in the Sustainable Development Goals 2030 (SDGs).
The charity Oxfam disseminated a message on the eve of Davos that just eight men own the same wealth as half the world. While it may have highlighted global income inequality, it could also inadvertently constitute an unwarranted ad hominem attack on those most involved in global philanthropy.
For example, Bill Gates, who attended Davos, is one of more than 150 billionaires who has signed the Giving Pledge, committed to giving more than half of his wealth to philanthropy or charitable causes either during his lifetime or in his will.
But it was valuable in instigating a much-needed debate at Davos and beyond. Who really are the privileged and the genuinely impoverished? What are their rights and responsibilities? When are the privileged recognized to have not only discharged their responsibilities but gone far beyond them? An answer may lie in determining who can be characterized as living in global extreme poverty.
According to the World Bank, in 1990 nearly 2 billion people, representing 37.1 percent the world’s population, lived in global extreme poverty. That means over 60 percent did not. In 2015, nearly 700 million people, representing 9.6 percent of the world’s population, lived in global extreme poverty. That means over 90 percent did not. To be part of the wealthiest half of the world’s adult population today would require having $3,210 in hand, minus debts.
Under the Giving Pledge, those 150-plus billionaires have pledged over half their wealth. The question then arises for the 90 percent of the planet not in global extreme poverty: What responsibility do we have to pledge and pay a proportion of our wealth to help the genuinely impoverished?
At Davos 2017, the most memorable experience for participants was the harrowing simulation “A Day in the Life of a Refugee” as Flickr witnesses. With Guterres himself a former participant, delegates partially experienced for 27 minutes what an average refugee experiences for 19 years — and there are 65 million of them.
With its mission to “improving the state of the world,” and under the theme, “Responsive and Responsible Leadership,” Davos 2017 can be defined in three terms: Worldview, empathy and the counter-narrative.
There are those who have a worldview of only helping themselves, while others are committed to improving the world around them. There are those with an aversion for the genuinely impoverished, while others are empathic and responsive. There are those promoting the counter-narrative imperative, where facts based on truth, and the desire to do good, help inform policy. The Davos Human of Tomorrow, therefore, can be said to emerge not by having walked a mile in a person’s shoes, but by only spending 27 minutes in them.
• Talal Malik is chairman and CEO of Alpha1Corp. International, a trusted adviser to some of the world’s top government and business leaders, and a dedicated humanitarian.