Can the World Economic Forum deal with the world’s social problems?

22 January 2015

It’s Davos time again, where many of the world’s most influential people get together for the World Economic Forum. Most are from business, but others come from politics and NGOs. Accordingly, the conference is significantly about doing business, especially in the halls and the hotels, but also about dealing with the world’s problems (such as income disparities and global warming), at least on the stages of the conference. Where it goes from there is anyone’s guess.

Quite clear, however, is that these problems have been getting steadily worse, although this can hardly be blamed on Davos. But is there something about a conference of this type that may be more the problem than the solution—by deflecting our attention away from the real causes of these problems?

Davos sits at the interface of the two most powerful forces in the world today: global corporations and a worldview from economics that justifies their private power. In its most dogmatic version, yet decidedly mainstream, this asserts that greed is good, property is sacred, markets are sufficient, and governments are suspect. Somehow corporate social responsibility is supposed to temper the worst effects of this. But will the lofty ideals of CSR conveyed on those stages compensate for the lowly deals concocted in back rooms around the world?

One time at Davos, in 2006, I attended a session entitled “Global Business: Savior or Scapegoat.” Some choice! The title revealed a bias apparently not recognized by those who ran the conference. In this session, one panel member, the chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase, went on about the few “bad apples” who were damaging the reputation of big business. On September 1 of 2013, after a string of scandals, the New York Times published an editorial entitled “Chasing J.P. Morgan Chase”, about its “sheer size, and scope and complexity…encourag[ing] speculative and bad behavior.” Subsequently the company agreed to a $13 billion settlement concerning its mortgage activities. These were ongoing at the time of the conference.

As noted in the TWOGs that preceded this one, our problems stem from a world that is seriously out of balance, tilted in favor of private forces and the economic dogma that supports them. This imbalance is what has to be addressed. But can it be in an economic forum intended for the very people who benefit most from this imbalance? How much success have the NGO people had in getting their messages past the public panels of Davos, into the behaviors of their intended audience? Indeed, to what extent have their own behaviors been instead altered by their attendance at these conferences—for example, toward running their NGOs like businesses.

I have been to the World Economic Forum three times, to do my thing and listen to other people doing theirs.1 In my more cynical moments, Davos struck me as the place where the people who spend 51 weeks a year creating the problems spend the 52nd pretending to solve them. Now this is not true—there are plenty of well-meaning people at Davos, from business and elsewhere—but I’ll bet it’s at least half true.

The problems of this world will not be resolved by the people who have been running this world—especially not in a fancy ski resort in the Swiss Alps.2 “Leadership” and “CSR” will not do it. As I have been railing on these past few weeks (this is the last of them, I promise), it is behaviors on the ground that will have to change, en mass—in businesses to be sure, but also in what the 99%, namely all we other bad apples, do in 52 weeks of the year: how we live and how aggressively we engage ourselves in righting what is so obviously wrong.

1. From one of these presentations, see my 1996 article “Musings on Management” about my reaction to the time constraints.

2. At least Davos runs for a few days. On May 27, 2014, Prince Charles, Bill Clinton, a Lady de Rothschild, and dozens of other movers and shakers of this world got together for a whole day on “Inclusive Capitalism”—another one of those adjectival fixes (see the TWOG on 17 October).

© 2015 Henry Mintzberg