The triumph of Davos

By Felix Salmon
January 30, 2011

Davos, in 2011, was the year when the cynics were finally proven wrong. Long derided as a sybaritic alpine gabfest, the World Economic Forum astonished the world with what it was capable of this year, deftly leveraging the talk around its chosen theme — “shared norms for the new reality” — into an effective and timely intervention in Egypt. The Forum’s slogan — “committed to improving the state of the world” — became reality, as the actions of a small and powerful few atop a distant Swiss alp managed to give shape and direction to what would otherwise have remained inchoate and dangerous demonstrations in the volatile North African hotspot.

Certainly the Forum had a lot to work with — it has long been looking long and hard at global risks including political instability in undemocratic countries as well as the demographics of North Africa and the Middle East; the adverse effects of high unemployment among both educated and uneducated youth; the game-changing aspects in autocratic regimes of the rapid spread of information over cellphones, the internet, and satellite TV; and countless other issues of direct relevance to Egypt.

On top of that, as the Egypt crisis evolved over the first few days of the Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, two things rapidly became clear. Firstly, this was an astonishing stroke of good timing: rarely is a major global crisis so fluid and susceptible to outside influence just as the world’s top politicians, businessmen, and thinkers are all in the same place at the same time. Secondly, the work being put in by delegates to define shared norms for the new reality was directly relevant to Egypt, which was clearly in desperate need of shared norms for everybody to agree on as it moves uncomfortably into recognition that it’s now in a new reality.

The result was undoubtedly impressive. All panels and events were reconfigured to concentrate on Egypt and what the delegates at Davos could do to help. The small Swiss village was full of leaders of every stripe — women’s leaders, youth leaders, media leaders, business leaders, and, of course, politicians with direct influence and importance, such as Amre Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League. Knowing that swift and focused action was the order of the day, they rapidly put together an action plan. It was both clear enough to persuade Hosni Mubarak that global opinion had turned decisively against him and that his position was no longer tenable, and flexible enough to adapt to rapidly-changing realities in Cairo.

With money from a large number of the Davos rich and communications expertise from broadcast, telecommunications, and social-media representatives, the manifesto put together in the space of just two days at the Congress Center became a clear rallying point not only for Egypt’s disaffected youth but also for their counterparts across the region. And with radical and democratic change now just a matter of timing, Arab countries saw that a peaceful transition to stable democracy was both possible and necessary. The rest is history.

Cynical bloggers had said that even events of Egypt’s magnitude would barely make a dent in the rigid and out-of-touch culture of Davos. The parties and ski trips would continue, they reckoned, the program would remain unchanged, and the handful of delegates interested in Egypt would simply cluster around flat-screen televisions screening Al Jazeera rather than actually doing anything productive. Those bloggers were forced to eat their words.

Did they think that the Forum’s commitment to improving the state of the world was simply a veneer designed to make an astonishingly expensive professional-networking event look vaguely respectable? Of course it wasn’t. We might be in a new reality now, but the leaders of Davos more than ever have the ability and determination to transcend their selfish agendas and unite to effect a major and positive change in the world. The triumph of Davos in 2011 has confirmed the World Economic Forum as an indispensable gathering-point for global leadership for decades to come.

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