At Davos, Why Is No One Talking About the Poor?

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Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty Images

A participant to the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting is seen in silhouette on January 27, 2012 in Davos.

I first learned about the World Economic Forum at Davos as a greenhorn in college. At the time, I was knee-deep in coursework on economic development, a field that extols the social and economic virtues of tending to the world’s poor. I was somewhere between Amartya’s Sen‘s 1999 Nobel Prize-winning book Development as Freedom, a cult sensation among wonky Ivy Leaguers and 20-something granolas bound for the Peace Corps, and Joseph Stiglitz‘s 2002 bestseller Globalization and Its Discontents, when I first dreamed of going to Davos to take part in the lofty mission of “solving the world’s problems.”

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Those were the years when globalization really earned its bad rap. And as a result, a counter movement, rooted in aspirations of global equity and social good, began to take hold. Anti-globalization protests so disrupted the WEF in 2001 that its organizers had to relocate the event to New York the following year. The anti-globalization movement even erected its own conference, the World Social Forum, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to serve as a populist counterweight to the elite Davos powwow. By 2002, Porto Alegre had drawn in 50,000 people, triple the number from the previous year. Even the Economist conceded that, in light of popular backlash, the march toward globalization could yet be reversed:

The economic history of the twentieth century is full of reminders that the move towards globalisation is not inevitable. War in 1914 brought an end to a period of economic openness and integration unparalleled even today. The 1930s were more painful than necessary precisely because of beggar-thy-neighbour policies adopted in the wake of the Depression. It is not impossible that governments today will turn their backs on open trade and capital flows. Many of those in Porto Alegre would welcome such a policy reversal.

In WEF-like circles, the biggest critics of globalization then were the defenders of the world’s poor, who cited a growing gap between the fortunes of Western economies and those of the developing world. As the Economist noted:

[Anti-globalizationists] point to the 2 billion or so people who live in countries where poverty has increased, where economic growth is stagnant, and where trade has shrunk as a proportion of GDP. A large chunk of the world, home to a third of its people and including much of Africa and the Muslim world, has been marginalized. Such deterioration in the living standards of so many, argue globalization’s critics, is evidence of the selective benefits it brings: the rich minority thrive at the expense of a much larger group of desperately poor people. It is this message [the World Social Forum] will seek to develop and strengthen.

As I scurried from panel to panel at Davos this year, I realized just how dramatically the perspectives on globalization have changed since those years. No doubt, the topic of globalization is as hot as ever at the WEF. But on the question of what to do about it, on how to make it inclusive and fair, the answers have changed.

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What’s missing in the WEF discussions is the perspective of the poor.  Unfair trade practices and poor working conditions in the developing world, issues that made it onto the WEF agenda a decade ago (and which keep rearing their ugly head), haven’t been raised at all. Instead, the conversation is acutely focused on the plight of the Western worker and his dwindling pension plan. Of course, that’s partly because WEF attendants overwhelmingly come from the rich world, which is slowly losing its privileged position in the global economy. It’s also because globalization has done a lot of good for the world’s poor. The migration of jobs from the developed to the developing world has pulled millions out of poverty.

But the ills of globalization have also bred suspicion and resentment among the disaffected. And that’s a big problem, because it undermines the social and political stability that open-market capitalism needs to thrive. One step in bridging that gap is to foster more inclusive conversations. Why not, for instance, recruit leaders from Porto Alegre (where attendance shrank to 15,000 this year) to spar with the 1% at the WEF? Or, as economist Daniel Gros noted, “there have been indirect communications between the ad hoc leadership of Occupy Davos and the leadership of the World Economic Forum. Now that would be an interesting panel: WEF head Klaus Schwab, J.P. Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, and a few protesters.” Gros was just being snarky, but that would be a most interesting discussion indeed.

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