Some would argue that the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos is no more than a cosy club for the elite, who mingle annually in the chilly Swiss Alps in the protected circle of their peers.
But Davos is so much more than that. Two weeks after my return from this annual event, I find myself returning constantly to the conversations, the engagements and the sharing of thinking.
I do this as I return to the day-to-day business of my life and find that I am richer for that week, more enabled to engage on everything from running my businesses, to leading people in my organisations and indeed to the way I look at some of the critical issues face by our society today, globally and in South Africa.
What did I get out of Davos?
- The opportunity to network, of course, which results in shared thinking on global issues, building partnerships around business opportunities, and building networks around issues of development.
- Time out from everyday work life and time to reflect with other business leaders on innovations, a better way of working, issues of leadership, and opportunities.
- Time out to reflect on the global challenges we face – instability, climate change, growing rates of youth unemployment, poverty, nationalism, privacy concerns.
- Meeting South African leaders away from home, which gives you a unique opportunity to look at the country’s challenges and opportunities from a distance.
- Davos challenges you at a personal level to understand what it means to be part of a business elite and to acknowledge that some of that money has to be used to address the challenges of a globally connected world, learning from the example of people like Bill Gates, who put his money, influence and intellect behind the problem of wealth inequality.
- Davos seeks to remind you of the need for all of us – business, politics and civil society – to come together to take stock of our contributions to delivering on a) the Millennium Development Goals, which seek to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality and empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; and ensure environmental sustainability, among other things, and b) our current challenges of youth unemployment; ensuring technology benefits everybody; the crises faced in the Middle East; and how to support emerging and developing economies.
Mostly Davos is an agenda-free environment that gives people with power (political and financial) an opportunity to speak freely to each other. And, importantly, to hear from others. It was an opportunity to learn from Japanese president Shinzo Abe and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, who came across as transformational leaders who used the event to explain their positions on economics and politics.
There are your usual dollar billionnaires in Davos, from Gates to Richard Branson, alongside civil society leaders such as from Oxfam and Greenpeace, which is headed by my dear friend Kumi Naidoo. However, the small percentage of female representation brought home to me the real need for transformation of our power structures, especially in business.
What is less well known about this annual WEF gathering is that immense exposure is given to young global talent through the Young Global Leaders forum, where you hear tech pioneers and global shapers talk about innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship. It gives you a great sense of hope and makes you feel that, despite the weight of the challenges we face, our world could be in safe hands if it was to be guided by these young people.
Another lesser known fact is that Davos also becomes the place for the world’s great writers, artists, musicians and performers to gather and engage with delegates at various sessions. Of course, your Hollywood types also attend.
South Africa is represented largely by the chief executive officers and chairmen of large corporations, our government and economic cluster ministers.
This year, President Jacob Zuma did not attend for the first time since becoming president and the government delegation was led by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.
I am fortunate to have attended Davos, maybe the only person to have done so, under different guises in the last two decades. My attendance mirrors my evolution from medical doctor through social entrepreneur to businessman with global links. I have had the opportunity to see Davos through different eyes. My first visit was as part of Nelson Mandela’s supporting medical team; a decade later I went as a Schwab Foundation social entrepreneur with former first lady Zanele Mbeki; and finally, from 2007 onwards, I went as a businessman, chairman of the Sekunjalo Group. The first few times I attended, I wore the infamous green badge which does not allow access to all the sessions but now, as a businessman, I have access to all sessions.
My Davos this year was very different from the previous years in that I had just finished an exhausting 10-day strategic session in three regions with about 200 of the leadership of Independent Media SA, the media group I acquired late last year, which also publishes Business Report.
- Media were top of my mind this year, and I attended many sessions on the changing media environment. I used the WEF internal diary system to meet a number of my global counterparts from Europe, the US and the emerging markets to understand how they have repositioned their businesses. A highlight was meeting the founder of Huffington Post, Arianna Huffington, whom I have always admired. I I was delighted when she invited me to attend the global launch of The World Post, the global version of her journal.
- The Cultural Leaders Dinner hosted by WEF managing director Alois Zwingi is a sought-after event. There are 10 tables with three incredibly interesting people sitting at each table, moving on after each course to the next table. It is a bit like speed dating. This year, Turkish writer Elif Shefak read from her latest book Honour, followed by a famous Peruvian chef and an Afghan music teacher who founded a music school. Also present was the professor of the film school that taught George Lucas.
- It was fun going to the Microsoft lounge and chatting to Gates (who, like everyone else here, had no bodyguards or assistants hovering), talking in the freezing cold to Branson and speaking to Matt Damon about saving the world’s water resources.
On the last day at Davos, I skied. This year I decided to do the “refugee run”, a simulation of what it is like to be a refugee for an hour. It is run by the Crossroads Foundation and it was one of the most traumatic hours I have experienced, including as it does soldiers, explosions and living in a tiny tent, experiencing bullying and watching family members being forced to have sex with soldiers in exchange for food. Experiencing life as a refugee in a simulation does not come close to the experiences of any of the refugees from Syria, Congo or Mynamar who spoke after the event. I am sure we all were strengthened in our resolve to work towards a world without refugees, without poverty.
This experience at Davos, along with my attending the simulation “Struggle For Survival” last year, brought me full circle – from my first attendance at Davos as a doctor fighting for human rights and campaigning against torture, to a social entrepreneur today.
Davos has changed over the years. The first time I attended I remember Greenpeace protesters and a high level of security. This time there was only a peaceful protest about polar bears and arctic drilling by Gazprom. The Greenpeace people were now inside the conference centre participating as full delegates. Naidoo, who is the head of Greenpeace globally and who comes from South Africa, and I joked about whether we had been co-opted or whether the world had changed.
Growing concerns at Davos this year were the high levels of youth unemployment, the fragile state of the Middle East, especially the conflict in Syria and, of course, the slowdown in emerging economies, especially China. It would have been unheard of years ago for youth unemployment to be the major topic of discussion.
Africa is slowly emerging from the shadows of other continents and this year Nigeria hosted a great event, handing out scarves to delegates much like South Africa did in 2010. And Africa is increasingly serving in leadership positions at Davos (I served as co-chairman of the Global Growth Companies board and I am a member of the Global Agenda Coucil). Davos represents an important opportunity for all of us to connect and reaffirm our commitment to our country and our continent. This year, the South Africa briefing was a robust affair and we discussed how best to attract investment to our country and continent. The guest speaker gave us a sober view of the collapse of emerging markets and its consequences for South Africa, and insight into how the country was perceived globally.
Davos looks like a cosy club for the elite and there is criticism of it being nothing more than a talk shop of a power elite that believes it has all the answers. There are many who refuse to attend Davos on this basis. But I would argue that getting all these people in the same space gives us an opportunity to reflect on all the answers that we don’t have.
For in that reflection is the opportunity to bring together everyone who can, everyone who wants to and everyone who should to try to find the answers and the solutions to all the issues that will transform the lives of billions of people.
Iqbal Survé is the executive chairman of Independent Newspapers