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WEF 2002
WEF 2003
WEF 2004


It turned out to be third time lucky for John Elkington on his latest visit to the World Economic Forum.

Even when jet-lagged, Bill Clinton knows how to hold Davos Man and Woman in the palm of his hand. Count me more or less in their number. Kicking off this year’s World Economic Forum on 21 January, he used language which was to resonate through the rest of that high-octane, high testosterone week. Nothing new there: Google the phrase ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid!’ - the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign slogan - and you’ll find its echoes everywhere. But now, it seems, Clinton ’s implicit message when on the broad range of economic, social and environmental challenges we face is, ‘It’s the System, Stupid!’

Instead of making flying visits to people like the Grameen Bank’s Muhammad Yunus, he suggested, we should bring Yunus – and folk like the property-rights-for-the-poor campaigner Hernando de Soto – in from the cold. Mainstream them. No doubt some corporate bottoms shifted uneasily in their seats at this call for some sort of Third Way revolution, but what exactly was Clinton prescribing, exactly? Sadly, at least in my memory, he was long on concept and short on detail.

He was, he said, all for systematic change, but the scale of the challenges we now face requires systemic change. Well, fine, and no doubt he would have won nods from many of those across the road at the ‘Public Eye on Davos’ and, indeed, at the anti-WEF World Social Forum, held this year in Mumbai, India. But most of these people, I suspect, would have soon parted company with the Davos crowd – even with Clinton - in terms of how much, how far, how fast and at whose expense.

Thinking back, though, it strikes me that it would be easy to over-dramatise the chasm between Davos and Mumbai. The divides are there, of course, but, willingly or not, both sides are in the process of adjusting their mindsets. In fact, this was the third time I had attended the World Economic Forum’s annual summit and I was forcefully struck by just how far both the nature and content of the debate have shifted over the past three years.

At WEF, many once forceful globalizers are now off balance, some even taking part in sessions on corporate social responsibility and sustainable development. It’s not yet a question of ‘Globalizers Anonymous’, but the agenda is a lot more nuanced than it was just a few years back. And, for the most part still in a parallel universe, a growing number of former anti-globalizers are trying on labels like alter-mondialiste and talking in terms of ‘responsible globalisation’.

Several swallows never did make a summer, but the basis for some form of convergence is clearly there. That really wasn’t the case a few years back. The first time I got the call, in 2002, the WEF event was held in New York, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The following year, 2003, most of the caravan returned happily to snowy Davos, in Switzerland . This time, though, there were bitter recriminations between America and its allies - who were actively planning for war and those who opposed invasion, with or without UN sanction. One of the sessions I remember best was the one where General Wesley Clark pointed energetically to places on the map of Iraq where the coalition forces expected to be attacked with anthrax and other weapons of mass destruction.

What a difference twelve months can make. This year, by contrast, US Vice-President Dick Cheney was in conciliatory mood. And my overall impression, while British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw drew no cheers for his lacklustre defence of the Iraqi venture, was that most participants were much more interested in what would happen to the US recovery and to the dollar. Most seemed to have little appetite for major changes in the economic architecture.

And something else had changed too, it seemed to me. Looking back, 2002 saw the WEF summit in New York invaded by a fairly considerable number of NGOs and fellow travellers, myself included. The trend evolved further in 2003. On both occasions, demonstrations in the streets outside helped keep the political pot bubbling. You could almost feel the steam percolating up through the floorboards into some of the sessions. This year, by contrast, the security forces choked off most of the protests in and around Davos, and – whether it was a related trend or not – the NGO voices seemed muted.

Behind the scenes, true, there were clashes between WEF officials and some NGOs on the best ways forward. Afterwards, the head of one highly reputable NGO told me that he – they - would not be coming back. I could understand the frustration. A couple of the parallel sessions I attended were surprisingly glib and ill-informed, although in my experience they were the exception. While you hear some of their research partners seethe that the relationship with WEF is pretty one sided, with the Forum claiming most of the credits, it has positioned itself as the most coherent global platform for integrated debate in this area.

When I challenged WEF co-CEO Jose Maria Figuieres, a former president of Costa Rica , on the issue of whether the Forum would ever take a stand position on a major policy issue, he stressed that it is essentially neutral in what it does. But, however you judge that claim, it really is leaning into the debate a bit more these days.

This year, for example, the WEF Global Governance Initiative launched its first annual report. And it is surprisingly critical of current efforts to tackle the priority issues identified at the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, in the form of the Millennium Development Goals. Scoring each of seven areas of activity out of a maximum of 10 for 2003, WEF set the numbers such that a ‘0’ means retrogression, whereas a ‘10’ means that “the world – that is, national governments, businesses, civil society and international organizations taken together - essentially did everything needed to be on track to reach the goals.”

The report came up with the following results: peace and security (3), poverty (4), hunger (3), education (3), health (4), environment (3) and human rights (3). Reading the numbers, it struck me that the world really deserves a school report I got some time late in the 1950s: “Sets himself low standards and consistently fails to achieve them.”

Whatever you think of WEF, this is an important contribution. Nor is this the only initiative WEF is helping drive forward in this area. Indeed, one of the reasons the NGOs probably seemed a bit muted to me this year was that the voices of the social entrepreneurs in Davos had been wound up several notches. Convened by the Schwab Foundation, also founded by WEF founder Klaus Schwab and his wife Hilde, the entrepreneurs came together for the first time at the WEF summit in New York . After a slightly wobbly start, more of them hit the ground running in Davos in 2003 and most really got into their stride this year.

Most social entrepreneurs today are unknown to the general public. Some, like Muhammad Yunus or Bunker Roy of the Barefoot College , may be well known to Bill Clinton and be covered fairly regularly in the international media, but for most of us most of what they do tends to disappear into the background noise. Nor are they guaranteed to succeed. Many of them will fail, some more than once. Such is the life of entrepreneurs, perhaps even more so of social entrepreneurs. But these people have the potential to transform the way in which hundreds of millions of people live, learn and work.

A huge and growing variety of social entrepreneurs are tackling such issues as environmental protection, family planning, the empowerment of women, fair trade, food security, the homeless, HIV/AIDS orphans and youth development. Where markets fail, as they do in relation to many of these issues, social entrepreneurs are working on leapfrog thinking, technology and business models to do the previously undoable. They are not primarily motivated by profit – although many are more than happy to make a profit.

In short, the phrase ‘The impossible takes a little longer’ could have been coined for them. It has been my great good fortune to be in the passenger seat as they began their WEF breakthrough. In 2002, I sat in on the social entrepreneur session in New York . In 2003, I facilitated the Davos social entrepreneurs session. And this year, with Pamela Hartigan, who runs the Schwab Foundation, I had the extraordinary privilege of interviewing 15 or so social entrepreneurs for a book we are planning. That’s around a quarter of the Schwab Foundation’s current network - and I emerged supercharged.

No wonder Clinton name-checks these people in his speeches. Both he and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan have every excuse for pleading exhaustion in the wake of their continuous efforts to get these issues onto the political agenda. But an hour with any of these entrepreneurs is like the shot of monkey gland extract that some rich people apparently used to come to Switzerland for. (And, who knows, perhaps some of the Davos crowd still do?)

Whatever, the real question right now is how we can initiate the necessary top-down changes to the market system to help social entrepreneurs bring their bottom-up activities to scale. Maybe it will help if we adopt the ‘It’s the System, Stupid!’ mantra, even sticking it on our fridge doors. But we can all be sure of one thing: only if we are prepared to throw our collective weight behind these extraordinary pioneers can we hope to see evidence of real progress in future Global Governance Initiative scorecards.

World Economic Forum:
Public Eye on Davos:
WEF World Social Forum:
Schwab Foundation: