Why Davos matters

Neal Keny-Guyer
Chief Executive Officer, Mercy Corps
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Davos is an easy target. Cocktail parties. Private jets. Bono sightings. A gathering of “elites” to talk about business and politics.

As someone who’s spent the last 30-odd years doing humanitarian work in some of the world’s toughest places, arriving in Davos can indeed shock the system. This year I came to Davos straight from the Central African Republic, a collapsing state, filled with suffering, that the world is mostly ignoring.

Rarified as this meeting is, Davos and gatherings like it advance peace and progress.  If you harbor doubts, take another look. Here’s why:

Davos brings together business leaders, senior government officials and policymakers, and social-change advocates to tackle the biggest issues of our times: inequality, climate change, a sustainable economy, youth employment, Syria, peace in the Middle East.  In the meeting rooms and on the sidelines, people here argue and inform, change their minds, and make new friends. Unlikely relationships are formed. People who thought they knew everything come away with broader knowledge and often more humility. And there is not only talk; there is action. Meaningful progress is made.

Progress is being made on a new vision for agriculture that promotes global food security, food production, and a sustainable environment. Progress is being made on financial inclusion – on bringing financial services to the more than 2 billion people who have no formal financial identity. Progress is being made on impact investing, with the promise of mobilizing massive private resources in market-based investments that help solve our most pressing social challenges – especially around the nexus of water, energy, food, and health. Substantive conversations happen around the major global humanitarian crises, from the devastating earthquake in Haiti to the current crisis in Syria. And Davos is helping to move inequality to the top of the global agenda.

The magic here is the multistakeholder approach. History teaches us that enduring, positive change rarely occurs, except when business, government, and civil society work together in ways that are participatory, accountable, transparent, and that employ mechanisms for peaceful change. This is the vision for change of my organization, Mercy Corps, and this is the unique spirit of Davos.

At its core, the World Economic Forum is about creating a community for “improving the state of the world.” Over the years, the World Economic Forum has made civil society an increasingly important participant in this community, in the Davos dialogue – from the winter meeting here in Switzerland to the Forum’s regional gatherings around the world. To be sure, representation should broaden, become more diverse, and move to higher visibility.

The boundaries are blurring – between public and private, between for-profit and not-for-profit, between the global north and global south. Social movements and bottom-up political change are more vital than ever. The best ideas still come from those most impacted by a global issue. To create a more just world, the bottom billion’s participation and power are essential.

Still, in today’s world, the solutions to our biggest challenges require partnership – across sectors, among stakeholders, and throughout society. These partnerships will be leveraged by technology and innovation and fuelled by the power of markets and private investment. That is why Davos matters today.

Yes, it is easy to criticize the gathering at Davos. And, yes, we should push the Forum and its community to do more, to push harder.  We face enormous challenges. We need all the positive energy we can muster, from the wisdom of local community organizations to the community at Davos to make our world more secure, sustainable and just. We need to humbly acknowledge that all efforts matter. In this spirit, our world is better, peace and progress are advanced because of Davos.  Let’s not overstate its importance, but neither should we undervalue it. More than anything, let’s align behind efforts that matter – and Davos matters.

Author: Neal Keny-Guyer is CEO of Mercy Corps, the global humanitarian organization. He participated in the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2014.

Image: The Swiss Alps are seen from a helicopter near Davos, Switzerland January 23, 2014. REUTERS/Gary Cameron 

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