Global Development crashes the Davos party

January 26, 2011

Joe Cerrell— Joe Cerrell is Director of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, European Office. The opinions expressed are his own. —

It used to be that sometime in the fall, around October, advocates for international development would gather and talk about the year ahead, including big events in the cultural and political calendar that could be used to draw attention to the plight of the world’s poorest.  Inevitably, there would be talk of the G8 and sometimes the World Cup, and another event – the World Economic Forum – would also feature as an important opportunity to get development onto the global agenda.

What greater coup than to crash this gathering in Davos and try to get the titans of business, government and industry to pay attention to Africa.  Development activists like me used to talk about the necessity of engaging “non-traditional allies” on our causes, and there was no better place than the WEF to recruit these new voices.

Of course we had in Bill Gates one of the great non-traditional champions on our side, and in 2000, when he came to Davos to announce the creation of an entity called GAVI, it was for most the first time they heard the king of software talk about the opportunity to save millions of lives through routine immunization.  It was a novelty of sorts.  One writer said Bill brought “unique credibility” to the issue of international health and a “business-minded” sense of how to tackle big challenges in the developing world.

Five years later, in what some consider a high-water mark for development hijacking the economic agenda in Davos, Prime Minister Tony Blair used his time at the Forum almost exclusively to garner support for his pro-Africa G8 agenda, racing from one meeting room to the next prodding leaders of the richest nations to make major new financial commitments to the continent.  That year he, along with Bill Gates, convened a memorable panel that included Bono, South African President Thabo Mbeki, and the Nigerian head of state, Olusegun Obasanjo.

The non-traditional allies ran amok that year in Davos with figures like Sharon Stone scolding delegates to give more and others like Angelina Jolie putting new issues on the Forum agenda.  For some of the Davos die-hards, enough was enough.  It was time for a return to a more traditional gathering where questions of financial stability and growth resumed their place at the main plenary sessions.

Since that time, I’ve been part of many discussions with people who have grown concerned that development has slipped off the agenda in Davos.  Heads of state and industry leaders seemed to be sticking closer to the economic script and development panels were relegated to smaller plenary halls, often times outside of the Congress Centre itself.

Yet a closer look reveals a more nuanced assessment.  It’s true that AIDS and malaria no longer ’headline’ WEF Annual Forum sessions, but they’ve given way to widening set of other pressing issues including food security, water and sanitation, and microfinance.

Without some of the man-bites-dog novelty of years past, international development has quietly taken its place as a standard agenda item on the WEF programme.  A few years ago, we would have celebrated with jubilation had the head of a multinational like Coca-Cola agreed to join a panel – in the main plenary room – on how to improve child health as Muhtar Kent will on Friday, alongside Melinda Gates.  Today, it is not surprising and is rather, somewhat expected, that CEOs devote a portion of their time in Davos to articulating what their companies are doing to advance the global development agenda. And that increasingly there is an inextricable link between that agenda and the prosperity of their own enterprises.

And increasingly it has become a place where leaders come to mark progress on previous commitments and not just point to problems.  Since the launch of GAVI just over a decade ago,  more than 5 million lives have been saved as a result of greater immunization coverage, and we’re on the brink of wiping out polio.

Davos should still be on the October agenda for advocates trying to get a good deal for the world’s poorest.  But as important is looking beyond convenings such as WEF to other global forums to make sure development gets ample air time.  One suggestion on the next party we need to crash is the G20, where there’s been little success to date in driving development onto the agenda.


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While the majority of your article appeared informationally based I found your worshiping tone towards the Gates obnoxious. It is not about them at all. Why can’t stars like Stone or Jolie present issues or encourage more donations. That’s fantastic they even bother to show up and make a pitch. BONO sure does. Bill and Melinda have a ton of money but that does not mean they are the only relevant voices. I’ve observed both Gates talk about charity for under developed nations. They come off as preachy as the next person. Next time I challege you to talk even more about the issues and less about the people who seem to need credit for “saving the world”. TonC

Posted by TonC | Report as abusive yY

Watch the video highlights of the WEF meeting at which Bill Gates helped launch the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (now known as the GAVI Alliance)– it’s very inspiring stuff when you think how successful this unique public-private partnership has been.

Posted by DanThomas | Report as abusive


Thanks for an insightful piece. I have been following the WEF agenda for the past few years and have also noticed the trends you point out.

Given your interest in international development, I wonder if you are aware of the Refugee Run simulation, hosted by UNHCR and Crossroads Foundation? Press coverage and further details here:  /2011/01/26/crossroads-foundation-take- refugee-run-to-davos-world-economic-foru m-115875-22876781/


Posted by MikeTozer | Report as abusive

TonC, seriously? Joe is director of the Gates Foundation in Europe. He’s not “worshiping,” he’s doing his job. And I thought he took a pretty matter-of-fact tone throughout, at that. Seems to me the only one with an obnoxious view of the Gateses here is you.

Posted by nickharcourt | Report as abusive