This Magic Moment, This Moment in History, This Time of National Vulnerability, This Time of Growing Ethical Consciousness. Carpe diem fever raced through the World Economic Forum as CEOs and government leaders vowed that "now is the time" to eradicate poverty, defuse the rage that breeds terrorism, and make profits being good corporate citizens. As WEF attendees enjoyed a private Elton John concert (courtesy of Lehman Brothers), hobnobbed at the New York Stock Exchange, set up business meetings out of the public eye to discuss public-private partnerships, they resolved to remember the needy. Just Do It.
From Jack Greenberg, CEO of McDonald's, touting the charitable contributions of Ronald McDonald House, to the band of 14 CEOs, including Douglas Daft of Coca-Cola, lauding their contributions to the "Women Leaders Initiative," there was an air of desperation, a plea almost, to recognize the good deeds of the business community. Meanwhile, government officials, eager for help and handouts from the private sector, complied with applause.
But the watchdog group Public Citizen sees the WEF as all talk. They charge that those who in the past have criticized the WEF agenda and demanded corporate accountability have not been invited back -- Indian physicist Vandana Shiva, and Third World Network director Martin Khor among them. Moreover, despite ongoing complaints about the lack of diversity at the WEF, 75.4 percent of the 2002 attendees come from Europe or North America, while only 4.12 percent come from the Middle East and 5.13 percent from Africa. But WEF participants repeated the mantra that the world has changed since 9-11 and they are looking to bridge the gap between rich and poor, at least for security's sake. "This meeting is a way of the rich tracking themselves," admitted Microsoft chairman Bill Gates.
Although the streets were quiet outside the Waldorf, where the conference was taking place, inside the plenary sessions -- Thursday's "For Hope," Saturday's "Beyond Good Intentions," and Sunday evening's "From Business Leaders to Global Leaders" (originally more loftily titled "The CEO as Statesman") -- protesters' call for fair globalization and economic justice was on the lips of panelists. "We must make use of this mood of common humanity," urged 31-year-old Queen Rania of Jordan. "Any grievance in any part of the world could come back to haunt us." If CEOs become good citizens, she suggested, "then we won't have protests outside."
Among the poorest of the poor countries such as Iran and Pakistan, the gap between the rich and poor is widening at a fast pace, according to a recent World Bank reporta point cited by a handful of politicians, who feel they bear the brunt of civic unrest that results from economic inequities. "The coalition we put together to fight terrorism should now be a coalition to fight poverty," said Philippine president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. "The protesters show that globalization isn't working for everyone. We didn't use to have an adjective to put before 'globalization'; now we have 'unbridled.'"
At a session on global anger, Amre Moussa, the secretary-general of the League of Arab States, said the problem is that "two-thirds of the world's population is poor and hungry" and "angry." Therefore, he and other panelists suggested, urgent attention needs to be paid to environmental issues, inhuman working conditions, the AIDS epidemic, preventable diseases like tuberculosis, polio, and malaria, and combatting illiteracy. A tall order, to be sure.
But the premise of this gathering -- including more than 1000 business leaders, 200 academics, 30 heads of state, 100 cabinet ministers, 74 ambassadors, and 40 religious leaders -- is that they have the clout to get it done. That is, if there is the will, the perseverance, and the courage -- all qualities cited throughout the conference as necessary for CEOs to be good leaders -- and, of course, the money.
Gates announced that his Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation had awarded $50 million in grants to three organizations to support HIV-AIDS prevention programs. While Gates called for reaching a goal of spending $40 per person for health care in poor countries (the U.S., Gates said, spends $4500 per person) his partner in popularizing poverty, U2's Bono, called for a "Marshall Plan for Africa." Bono, who has championed the Drop the Debt campaign, called upon the business elite (of which he is one) to seize the moment by helping the 25 million HIV-infected Africans so that "we don't one day look back to this time and see that we let an entire continent burst into flames while we stood around with watering cans." After September 11, Africa slipped off the map for most Americansand yet by decade's end it is estimated that there will be 40 million orphans as a result of the AIDS crisis. Asked Bono, "Is the developed world really interested in the developing world?"
The theme of the conference, "Leadership in Fragile Times," instigated conversations about what makes a good corporate citizen and how to combat global anger. At the Sunday-evening panel, "From Business Leaders to Global Leaders," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Don Evans said that being a good corporate citizen "is letting people know you care about them." Rolf-Ernst Breuer, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said it sometimes meant saying no, as Deutsche Bank did, to funding a Latin American pipeline that would destroy the environment. "That never would have happened 10 years ago," he added.
When asked by Noreena Hertz, author of The Silent Takeover, whether they could support greater global regulation to preserve the environment and raise labor standards, the roll call went something like this: David H. Komansky, CEO of Merrill Lynch & Co.: "I am not a devotee of greater government regulation . . . but there should be some kind of global forum to help sovereign nations regulate these issues." Gates: "It's a slippery slope. We don't want protectionism." Taizo Nishimuro, chairman of Toshiba: "It's complicated." Louis Schweitzer, CEO of Renault: "Yes, I would support this." And what do the CEOs think defines the good future business leader? Vision, thinking outside the box, learning English (or a second language), spending at least one year outside one's home country, having a good sense of how one's government decides policy.
Thus replenished with notions of good citizenship, the CEOs moved on to Super Bowl parties. By Sunday evening, Bono was jogging around a heart-shaped stage in New Orleans singing "Beautiful Day" during halftime; the president of Poland had said he'd rather be in Davos, Switzerland, where the WEF is usually held; more than 200 protesters had been arrested; and former Enron CEO Kenneth Lay was refusing to testify before Congress. Enron may prove what critics and skeptics most fear, that tight ties between CEOs and government officials -- the very bonds fostered at the WEF -- can ultimately rob a worker of a job and a retirement plan, further widening the gap between rich and poor. Kenneth Lay, once ubiquitous at these meetings, has since been disinvited.
Lenora Todaro is a senior editor at the Village Voice.