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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 February 2019

As politicians flounder, businesses could fill the void

With vast resources and plenty of time, companies are finding solutions to the great challenges of our day

Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos's wealth alone is comparable to countries such as Morocco, Ukraine and Kuwait. Brent Lewis / Getty
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos's wealth alone is comparable to countries such as Morocco, Ukraine and Kuwait. Brent Lewis / Getty

Political attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos fell like dominoes. Donald Trump was followed by the entire White House delegation, then Britain's Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron, not to mention those that never even signed up in the first place – Xi Jinping, Justin Trudeau and many more.

Mr Trump's withdrawal was an attention-grabbing move, driven by US domestic politics, but it also emphasised a wider issue: a growing vacuum in political leadership around the world.

Fragmented, divided, hamstrung, myopic, ineffective, unstable, dogmatic – politics in 2019 feel trapped in a web of discontent. Americans look on helpless as their leaders refuse to co-operate amid a paralysing government shutdown, while Britons gape at their government’s inability to make a decisive move on Brexit. These are divided nations with equally divided political climates.

In Europe, a string of election upsets from Germany to Sweden show the rise of right-wing politics. In France, Mr Macron faces angry protests against his economic reforms. Emerging nations aren't immune either. Brazil’s growth has been undermined by nagging political unrest, while China’s leaders are tackling slowing growth as they face off against the US in a war of words and tariffs.

Delegates heading to the Swiss mountains for the World Economic Forum this year are once again being encouraged to consider the implications of a "Fourth Industrial Revolution", a concept introduced by WEF founder Klaus Schwab. The Davos pioneer warns of a potential crisis, as well as boundless opportunity, on the back of rapidly emerging new technology. If only policymakers had the luxury of time to tackle it. For now the world seems short on leaders with the capacity to consider the future when they are overwhelmed with challenges requiring attention today.

Instead, the call to action is being answered by the business elite, many of whom are present this year. The work is well under way after 2018, a standout year for philanthropic endeavour. From health care to education, investment in artificial intelligence, defending the free press and raising the minimum wage, businesses put their money on the table to create real change.

To paraphrase the chief financial officer of Morgan Stanley last week, the final quarter of 2018 may have had a "messy end", but the value of companies like Apple, Google and Amazon still exceeds that of entire nations. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos's wealth alone is comparable to the likes of Morocco, Ukraine and Kuwait. And unlike governments, these companies and persons can act fast.

Last week, Microsoft pledged $500 million to tackle Seattle’s affordable housing crisis. Late last year Amazon, a company that had become a byword for low-paid and low-quality work in recent years, increased its minimum wage in the US and UK, pressuring others in need of workers to follow suit.

Stephen Schwarzman, chief executive of the Blackstone Group, gave $350 million (Dh1.28 billion) to help establish a college of computing and artificial intelligence at MIT. Recognising the challenge of soaring healthcare costs, the heads of Berkshire Hathaway, Amazon and JPM joined forces to tackle the problem. Whatever their motives, they are stepping up to the plate.

Studies indicate that millennials look for employers who align with their personal values, as do consumers. Political stands on issues from gun control and police brutality to same-sex marriage have therefore been taken by major companies in the US. The risks, brands like Nike have decided, are worth it. When the Trump administration announced it was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, companies as varied as Tesla, Disney and Goldman Sachs united in their condemnation of the move and pledged to continue the fight against climate change.

If doubts persist, perhaps the global elite at Davos would be inspired by a figure from the Industrial Revolution.

Titus Salt, born more than 200 years ago in Yorkshire, England, built a giant textile business. Anxious that his employees should be lifted out of poverty and enjoy access to good housing, education and health care, he moved his business to a rural area away from the city of Bradford. There he built houses, a hospital, a library, a school and other facilities for workers employed in his giant mill. It was an enduring, decisive solution to the fundamental challenges facing those who had helped create his enormous wealth.

When Salt died, a reported 100,000 people lined the streets for his funeral. The town he built, Saltaire, stands to this day.

One of the failings of liberal democracy is that necessary but unpopular policies often cannot be implemented. Likewise, term limits and election cycles inhibit grand plans and thwart essential change.

As leaders in the world’s greatest and most enduring democracies struggle in stasis and conflict, perhaps the key to unlocking the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to be found not from nation states, but the companies that are now their equivalents. From welfare to healthcare, via education, childcare, equal rights and the environment, a collective philanthropy that directs its energy at practical solutions to problems governments currently seem ill-equipped to tackle could inject much needed energy, optimism and action.

Julia Chatterley is an anchor for CNN International, currently broadcasting from Davos. Her morning programme, First Move, was launched last year

Updated: January 27, 2019 11:30 AM

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