If you can’t say it at home, just go to Davos
The five-day World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland drew the usual crowd from the G20 countries spinning their usual fluff on all the ails of the world’s economy and, in some cases, the world’s politics. The media at large gave it extended coverage, also as usual.
But, there were several voices in the mainstream media, criticising the entire event. Some of these were mild but astonishingly, there were several pieces on the WEF severely criticising the meeting, its delegates, its deliberations, and its resolutions.
It seems from the outside, the WEF is nearing its natural death.
What with the existence of the formal G20 platform, various UN agencies, and a host of other international meetings, the WEF has probably become obsolete as a boardroom for the rich and powerful. In the United States, the World Economic Forum has been discredited at grass roots level for many years. What is going on in the minds of the US political establishment I do not know, but I wonder if they have not asked themselves, exactly why do they still bother to attend the Davos meeting. They see the same crowd often enough. For Europe, the same argument applies.
Perhaps the organisers of Davos realise this. It’s a guess but it may be the explanation for various other regional meetings under the WEF umbrella. Considering the contributions at the WEF, it is indeed a valid question to ask what purpose the meeting still serves, if any.
It is true that the Davos crowd is familiar with one another and it is true that they have ample opportunity throughout the year to discuss whatever it is they deem important. In this sense, Davos is just a showcase. Sort of a party that does not change one’s fortune, but it is still important to be seen there. But there is an element we may overlook.
The World Economic Forum provides an opportunity to African leaders to meet, talk, and discuss complicated and sensitive issues without the pressure of an electorate listening to every word. As far as I know all meetings are public, and all discussions, deliberations and contributions are on record. But it does bring people who often do not have the opportunity to meet and to talk, together, and I cannot imagine, if they find common ground, that they will not meet and talk in private away from the public stage and the media’s scrutiny.
So, although the World Economic Forum may struggle at this moment to find a Raison d’Etre in the developed world, it certainly provides a link between African leaders that is not always available on the continent. I assume the same applies to other regions like South America, the Middle East, and the Far East. Another dimension is that it provides exponents of the so-called BRICS economies to meet and discuss pertinent issues, in private, removed from any particular territory, leading to an open and frank exchange, I hope, which may otherwise not be possible when BRICS members meet in a member country. The WEF may have served its useful purpose for its originators but is now starting to grow into a pliable platform for Africa as a whole.
In my opinion, the WEF means for Africa a lot more than the African Union.
This week, I read a WEF report of a discussion last Thursday where only African leaders officiated. Removed from their agendas back home, I was surprised by the frank nature of the discussion and the openness that prevailed in the roundtable discussions after the panel session.
It is also noticeable that there is a high degree of convergence. During this discussion among African leaders, common issues quickly emerged between all the various participants. Regional integration topped the list followed by industrialisation, manufacturing of tradeable goods, increasing intra-regional trade, trade barriers erected by African countries themselves, trade barriers imposed by physical and logistical shortcomings, beneficiation of minerals, and finally, processing and value-adding of agricultural produce. And of course, the underlying tone of all these deliberations were poverty alleviation, development and prosperity.
It is widely known that I am sceptical of the African Union dream. I would not say it is entirely a pipe dream but there are many conditions, currently non-existent, which have to be met first before a unified Africa resumes a modicum of reality, and that will not be in the next 50 years.
I am instead an advocate for regional integration and I also believe that Africa will develop rapidly and automatically into a West, Eastern and Southern African block and that only the nuclei within these blocks will have meaningful economic links. For the rest, countries within a regional block will trade with neighbours in that same block. This process may achieve some success within the next 50 years.
The World Economic Forum may seem dead or dying, but for us, there is still usable life left.