A few weeks ago I wondered whether global health watchers should pay more attention to the WHO Executive Board or to the annual Davos meeting, both taking place in Switzerland as you know. By now, I’ve come to a conclusion, and I’m afraid it’s not a very diplomatic one.
I think the world as a whole should ignore Davos, at least until it changes its ways. That would include top journalists from CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, CCTV, … and yes, also the global health community, at least the ones who are invited there. Even people like Bill Gates, Jim Kim, Judith Rodin, Seth Berkley or others who try to do important work there – I won’t deny public private partnerships and philanthropic foundations do some things right.
So why should we leave this global elite alone? Well, because it’s increasingly clear that the majority of the world is not very enchanted anymore with these sorts of meetings, if they ever were in the first place. Just read the new Oxfam report, ‘Working for the few’ to find out about the latest inequality statistics, they are horrifying. A majority of people in quite a few countries, and not the least ones, are now convinced that the rules don’t work in their favor but in the interests of the rich. Power grab by economic elites, wide ranging political capture, … it’s not just a phenomenon anymore characterizing failed states or some other LMICs, increasingly, citizens worldwide are fed up with it.
Even the Davos crowd themselves see inequality as a key global challenge nowadays and a driver of “instability”, according to their Annual Risk report. So as a Guardian columnist said today, it appears the Davos elite ‘gets it’, even if the behavior of the organizers is still not very convincing, for example with respect to inviting tax dodgers.
The question is, though, does the majority of the world truly believe the ‘high level’ debates in Davos will make this world a more just, more sustainable and more inclusive place? I’m afraid not, at least if the prevailing sense one gets when reading the Oxfam report is correct – many people now think that political institutions are rigged in favour of the economic elites. Davos might be a key “networking” event only, but it’s a symbol of everything that is wrong in this world and the privileged relationship between economic and political elites in particular. Put bluntly, the annual meeting has become something like a red rag to a bull (with the bull being the many less privileged people in the world, or the 99 or 99.99 % if you want). And you know what happened to the bull fights in Spain.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any well-meaning people in Davos, in fact, many of them probably have good intentions. But the set-up is fundamentally wrong. So I personally feel that global health leaders, but also journalists from mainstream media, should stay away from the Swiss resort, as they provide the circus with an aura of respectability and send the wrong signals to common citizens. Even more so now that the global health community as a whole increasingly talks about the importance of health equity (see the Lancet 2035’s ‘Grand Convergence’ idea for example, or other discussions related to post-MDGs). By showing up there, one in effect allies with the very ones held responsible for a deeply unjust world and unsustainable economic model, whether we like it or not. Multi-stakeholder forums are fine, and generally we don’t think boycotting them is the way to go, but Davos has by now become the symbol of everything that is fundamentally flawed in this world. So even if plenty of sessions are devoted to sustainability and the health sector of the future, and are intellectually very stimulating, in a way, I think the global health community should no longer try to convey its core messages there. There must be better ways to engage with the corporate sector, world leaders, top economists, or top dogs from the financial sector on issues like polio eradication, the NCD challenge or the End of Aids.
As an alternative for staying away, even better, I think the global health community could argue for a significant representation of the downtrodden of this world as well as of ordinary citizens in Davos (and all regional meetings of the World Economic Forum), let’s say at least 50 % of the participants. I don’t mean representatives from organisations like Oxfam or world known philantropists, no matter how much I appreciate their work, no, I mean Klaus Schwab should also invite the poor, the neglected, marginalized communities, the increasing “precariat”, the squeezed middle classes, … to make this a truly ‘multi-stakeholder’ forum, and let the happy few chat away with them on the state of the world. As a sort of reality check. I don’t think the elite should have the monopoly on brainstorming about the 21st century. If this sounds populist, so be it.
And let then Zakaria or Amanpour report on these debates.