It’s my first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the annual gathering of the 1%. Like all Davos virgins, I was initially overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the power around me. It really is a conference for the ruling class.
Here’s how ridiculously A-list this thing is:
So far, I’ve seen at least five presidents or prime ministers give speeches. (Six if you believe Al Gore was actually elected US president in 2000.) I blew off the heads of Ireland, the Netherlands, and Egypt because there was more interesting stuff going on. Shimon Peres just walked past me in the lobby. I was forced to push past WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell — someone I would normally jump at the chance if saying hello to — because I was late for a meeting with someone even more important.
Back in London, I get excited when I’m going to meet a tech startup CEO who has a few million in venture funding and a couple of dozen employees. In Davos, I had coffee with an Indian enterprise tech CEO who has 100,000 employees and several billion in revenue.
There are so many billionaires here that it now costs about £77 ($US117) for the 15-minute taxi ride between Davos and Klosters, where many of the hotels are.
It’s another world.
But … Davos has its downside, too (in addition to the taxi extortion). Mainly, it’s the lack of substance coming from many of the panelists. In meeting after meeting, some of the brightest minds on the planet are spouting vague, platitudinous nonsense. Stuff that wouldn’t pass muster in an undergraduate political science class.
Major economies are performing unevenly. Commodity prices are going through fluctuations. … the goal of prosperity and equality is elusive … Dialogue and consultation must be explored.
He flew a long way to say that.
That’s the central contradiction of Davos. In public, everyone is saying nothing. All the real action is going on behind closed doors.
So when I managed to get a front row seat in a tiny room for a panel at which former UK prime minister Gordon Brown was speaking, I steeled myself. I knew the room was designed in such a way that Brown would have to get past me to get out, and that few others would be in there (the room is in a largely unsignposted basement underneath the actual conference). This was my chance to ask a question that would require Brown to actually say something specific, of substance.
His topic was foreign aid for education. (He is now the UN special envoy for global education.) To Brown’s credit, he made a good case: 130 million children globally reach grade 4 of school without actually learning to read or write. The most affluent 20% of children have 18 times more money spent on their education than the poorest 20%, globally. About $US26 billion needs to be spent if every child on the planet is to receive a proper education.
The obvious question here is where, exactly, is this $US26 billion going to come from? The UNICEF press release said that the sum was equivalent to 5% of the profits of the top 15 biggest companies. The idea that those companies would sit still for a 5% tax on their net income to fund schools in Africa is ridiculous, of course, and not even Brown suggested that would happen.
No specifics were offered. Only the repeated assertion that “we” — the global, nebulous, royal “we” — must spend more, do more, for children in countries where kids don’t go to school.
Brown did say something specific on that point: Lebanon had committed to educating as many children from the Syrian refugee crisis as it could, and was stuffing 100,000 of them into double-shift schools on a budget of $US136 million. The only thing holding Lebanon back from doing more (there are 400,000 more Syrian refugee children basically going uneducated in Lebanon right now) was a lack of funds.
If other governments in poor, developing countries could be persuaded to act like Lebanon, huge progress would be made, Brown argued.
This, I decided, would be the question that I would ask Brown. Even if the $US26 billion could be found, was it wise to give it to governments in countries with track records of corruption and non-transparency? I imagined how fast $US136 million would be “spent” on “schools” in Nigeria, one of the most corrupt countries on Earth.
Brown did have an answer. In countries with bad governments, “we would do it in a different way,” he said. In places like South Sudan and Nigeria, churches, charities, and voluntary organisations would be employed to invest the money. But his main point was this: “If we cannot show people that we can take action in these situations it’s going to be difficult to prove to other countries that … you can make a difference there.”
So, the plan seems to be to get $US26 billion from an unspecified source, and spend it in a non-specified way through a variety of channels. It’s a plan that’s so short on details, no one could disagree with it.
It’s not that the proposal is wrong. Brown’s cause is a noble one (once you hear about what happens to uneducated girls in Africa, $US26 billion doesn’t seem like an unreasonable sum). But it would be nice if, just for once, someone at Davos would say something meaningful in public.
That’s the real lost opportunity here. There are what feels like 5 million journalists in Davos right now, all aching for someone to tell it like it is, in plain English, with some specific details. I tried my best with Brown, but he’s an old hand at this. He wasn’t going to say something anyone could disagree with.
Which is a shame, because it would have made his case so much more convincing.
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