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I have just returned from Baku, Azerbaijan, having attended the 2012 Crans Montana Forum.
I must admit that before receiving an invitation to attend the forum this year, I had not heard of it.
The list of presenters was impressive and included heads of state. The subject of the presentations, under the theme, “Addressing a Changing World”, seemed engaging, and as the forum had proposed to cover my expenditure, I took the opportunity to learn what I could.
First, I must say that if making international connections at the highest level is something that you wish to achieve, then the forum is definitely the place to do this.
Several presidents made presentations alongside the who’s who of the oil world (including Sheikh Mohammed bin Hamad bin Mohammed Al Sharqi, the Crown Prince of Fujairah, United Arab Emirates).
I met and befriended several members of parliament from around the world and influential business people involved in the energy sector. The success of the forum lies not in that people at this level attend, but that, on the whole, they are eager to engage.
The opening session was concerned with our changing world and, considering the subject, it seemed fitting the forum took place in Baku. I was told that, not long ago, Baku was a rather dilapidated place, with oil spillages in several places. So much oil leaked out that the place smelled strongly of it.
Now the city is a magical metropolis, boasting modern buildings on wide boulevards, a renovated old city and five-star hotels on every corner. There is barely a whiff of oil in the air. It far exceeded any expectations I might have had, and we were told most of the development that we observed had taken place over the past decade. Cranes can be seen all over the city.
Azerbaijan lays claim to having had the highest economic growth rate for the past several years. Its economy has trebled in size in eight years, and unemployment is about 5 percent. It is an oil-rich country, but what is remarkable about what it has achieved is that it has utilised the proceeds from its natural resources to improve Azerbaijan for the people.
In saying this, I am in no way advocating nationalisation. What I am saying is that we do have an abundance of natural resources, and we should be seeing the benefits on the ground.
Asked to explain what lies behind the country’s success, President Ilham Aliyev attributed the growth to educating citizens (“turning black gold into human gold”), a significant investment in information technology, putting the right people in key positions, and creating a favourable business environment.
We know that these are critical issues for SA to tackle. We hear it over and over again, but seeing the results in Azerbaijan was very powerful.
There were several other interesting sessions, including one on developing an effective regional transport system, several on energy efficiency and energy renewables, a session on cyber warfare, and another on women’s rights.
This was a gathering of powerful and influential people brought together to establish stronger relationships and to seek sustainable solutions for global challenges.
There were also a number of inspiring people, passionate advocates for change, like Frida Allaghi from Libya, who spoke passionately about Libya’s liberation. But the person who made the strongest impression on me was a French member of parliament, Jean Lassalle. Some years ago, a large corporate in his constituency made the decision to relocate its business. Lassalle did everything he could to stop it from leaving, finally resorting to a hunger strike that lasted 41 days. Lassalle was close to death when the chief executive agreed that the company would stay. Now that’s serious commitment.
* Melanie Veness, Global Insight is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.