Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 27 May 2019

Davos Man will be asking all the right questions – but is he the right person to ask them?

Critical issues from global warming to innovation and technology will be on the agenda at the annual conference but it might be the system itself that requires change

At this time of year, the spotlight always falls on the Swiss ski resort of Davos, when world leaders and other luminaries gather for the World Economic Forum meeting. The news so far has been about who is not going, among them Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmerson Mnangagwa, all detained by troubles largely of their own making at home in America, Britain and Zimbabwe, respectively.

Steve Bannon, the former White House strategist, rarely elicits empathy but his view that people are “tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos" will chime with many. To underline the charge that the gathering is a club of the global elite, out-of-touch capitalists insulated from the problems and concerns of ordinary people, Oxfam has just released a report to coincide with the opening of Davos that shows just how badly inequality has been growing – to the extent that the world’s 26 richest people now own as much as the world’s poorest 50 per cent.

But on paper, at least, a lot of the subjects up for discussion at the WEF conference are on the right track. There are sessions on global warming, innovation and technology, and much talk about the need to strengthen social capital and renew public confidence in free and democratic societies.

In an introductory paper titled Globalisation 4.0 – what it means and how it could benefit us all, WEF founder Klaus Schwab rightly concludes: “This moment of crisis has raised important questions about our global-governance architecture. With more and more voters demanding to ‘take back control’ from ‘global forces’, the challenge is to restore sovereignty in a world that requires co-operation.”

But I think the so-called Davos Man and Davos Woman are never going to be the people to answer these questions adequately. Because he and she are resolutely wedded to the market-driven capitalist/ globalist model that is now so widely thought to be in trouble and is being questioned and rejected by so many different populations across the continents.

According to the definition by the late Samuel Huntington, Davos Men are “cosmocrats” who "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations”. They think the system can be fixed with a bit of tinkering at the margins and that there are ways the market can be used to do so. It would never enter their heads to consider that the system might be the problem itself.

Take the issue of "tribalism", one instance of which is segregated communities. The area of Kuala Lumpur in which I live is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Chinese Malaysians, to the tune of about 90 per cent in my condominium development. Other areas are almost completely Malay.

The reason this is considered a problem is that it contributes to the "silo" mentality whereby Malaysia's different races are frequently educated and raised separately. Knowing so little about each other increases the risk of tensions and harms national unity. This is what the market – free choice – has produced.

This did not happen in neighbouring Singapore, however, because of what some might consider heavy-handed government intervention. To stop the creation of ethnic ghettos, the state set quotas for public housing estates (in which 85 per cent of the population live, although most are owners too). They forced integration. Such a top-down approach is anathema to the Davos crowd, so attached are they to the primacy of the market.

Similarly they will never really understand why people voted for Brexit or Donald Trump. They might seek to uncover the reasons but they will think those are bad reasons and that those voters were fundamentally wrong. They might entertain guests from the populist right: just as Mr Trump was the star of last year's Davos, Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro is expected to make the most waves this week. But these are attempts to edge such leaders towards Davos Man's ideology by flattery rather than an acknowledgement that the muscular nationalism they represent has every right to be represented democratically, however crude they may find it.

And when it comes to global-governance architecture, they might admit that China, Indonesia, India and other developing countries should have some say in how that develops. But what they won't do is try to think through the UN or the IMF from first principles today, and then try to imagine what kind of organisations they might or should be, had they been designed more inclusively.

There are plenty of impressive speakers and events associated with WEF. Who could be against the Crystal Awards, which honour “exceptional artists and cultural leaders whose important contributions are improving the state of the world”? Who would not want to hear from Sir David Attenborough, perhaps the natural world’s greatest champion and explainer, or Kishore Mahbubani, the Singaporean academic who can be relied on to provoke and entertain in equal measure? Many of the sessions are on important topics, such as rethinking global financial risk, peace and reconciliation in a multipolar world, populism and globalism.

So Davos Man might be asking the right questions this year. But he's the wrong person to be asking them, because he's too set in his ways to contemplate real change – or to concede that anybody else might have a point that is truly valid. The forum ought to be an opportunity for a true exchange of ideas which could benefit the countries of the high-level delegates and politicians attending. Instead it seems unable to shake off its reputation as the global elite’s favourite networking session. Let’s hope Davos Man proves us wrong this year.

Sholto Byrnes is a Kuala Lumpur-based commentator and consultant and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum

Updated: January 23, 2019 09:12 AM