Timothy Garton Ash: Clearing a path out of poverty

'About 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Can anyone doubt this is the greatest moral challenge facing humankind?'
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The Independent Online

It was Saturday night in the Davos congress centre, and a black South African group called Soundz of Africa was on stage, singing native songs. The Soundz men wore T-shirts and brightly coloured headbands, the women patterned pillar hats and short cloaks, and they moved their heavy bodies with amazing grace. The mainly white audience, women slim and bejewelled, men in dinner jackets or smart suits - and at this moment representing, individually and corporately, the largest concentration of private wealth on earth - clapped along, demanded an encore, rose to their feet in applause. Who says the rich north doesn't care about the poor south?

It was Saturday night in the Davos congress centre, and a black South African group called Soundz of Africa was on stage, singing native songs. The Soundz men wore T-shirts and brightly coloured headbands, the women patterned pillar hats and short cloaks, and they moved their heavy bodies with amazing grace. The mainly white audience, women slim and bejewelled, men in dinner jackets or smart suits - and at this moment representing, individually and corporately, the largest concentration of private wealth on earth - clapped along, demanded an encore, rose to their feet in applause. Who says the rich north doesn't care about the poor south?

Meanwhile, anti-Davos protesters who had been prevented by police from getting to the mountain resort were going on the rampage back in Zurich, setting light to cars and containers near the main railway station. "We carried the can for Davos," said a Zurich police official, and the Swiss papers called it "black Saturday". Along with the hooligans, many more peaceful demonstrators had been turned back, including a member of the European Parliament.

The Davos congress centre was surrounded by high wire fences and armed police. I noticed as soon as I arrived that the centre of the usually busy skiing town was eerily quiet. The silence seemed tense with anticipation, as local shopkeepers closed their shops and rumour spread. "The road from Zurich has been blocked," people confided, and then, "They've reached Klosters!" Almost like being in the Winter Palace, waiting for the revolution.

"Are there any demonstrators in town?" I asked one policeman on Saturday morning. "Well, you can't tell, can you, because they sneak in looking like ordinary people." (Seditious thought: might they actually be ordinary people?) In the event, some two to three hundred did get through, demonstrated peacefully and were pushed back to the railway station by a freezing blast from a water-cannon.

With this year's events, the Davos question is posed. In the last decade of the 20th century, "Davos" - that is, the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in this place - triumphantly became a symbol of globalised capitalism. The Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term "Davos Man" to identify a member of the new global élite. (Huntington was present in person this year - but the inventor of Davos Man was always himself Davos Man.) At the beginning of the 21st century, it has become a focus for the backlash against globalised capitalism. This year, for the first time, an "anti-Davos" was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, and another is planned for 2002.

Not that the protesters are, for the most part, themselves direct losers from globalisation. Indeed, the technologies of globalisation facilitate their work. The mobile phone and the internet are now an essential part of the modern protester's tool-kit. And Davos is the perfect target, with all the world's media assembled in one small, picturesque place. One day I came back to my hotel to find three smartly dressed businessman standing in front of it. Two policemen were talking to them, and behind the policemen was a whole battery of television cameras. The businessmen were actually protesters dressed as businessmen. Davos provided the publicity-multiplier of their dreams.

The Davos question is two questions. The first is how to deal with what, after the protests in Seattle, Prague and Nice, is clearly becoming part of the normality for any major international meeting. What is, so to speak, the etiquette of dialogue? What is the right balance between security and freedom? Representatives of non-governmental organisations who participated in the World Economic Forum meeting expressed their dismay at the curtailment of people's right to demonstrate peacefully. Some others I spoke to felt the Swiss police had been unnecessarily heavy-handed.

At the European summit in Nice, by contrast, tens of thousands of people passed down a main road just a hundred metres from the congress centre where European leaders were meeting. From the entrance, one could clearly hear their chants and the beat of their drums. That's how it should be. But this is not so easy to manage in a narrow mountain valley, with just two narrow main roads going along it, and so many high security risks (Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, the presidents of Serbia and Albania) moving around the town.

The second, much larger and more important Davos question is: can ways be found from within this framework of triumphant globalised capitalism to offer the world's poor a walkable path out of poverty? (And to do that, one must add, without destroying the world for our grandchildren.) President Vincente Fox of Mexico opened this year's meeting with a reminder that an estimated 1.2 billion people live on less than $1 a day. Can anyone seriously doubt that this is the greatest single moral challenge now facing humankind?

But how is it to be addressed? By taking from the rich and giving to the poor? At such lavish events, with their champagne, elaborate dinners and expensive everything, one does have occasional Robin Hood-thoughts about, say, how many African villages the cost of this dinner would sustain. "More charity" is not an answer to be dismissed lightly.

Or by erecting a new, fundamentally different economic system? But the 20th century saw the most grandiose attempts to do that, and the results were always worse. You cannot distribute what is not produced, and to maximise production you need both freedom and, yes, the harnessing of human greed. The framework of global capitalism is the worst possible starting-point, apart from all the other starting-points that have been tried from time to time. My formulation of the main Davos question is a careful one. I did not say "to close the gap between rich and poor" or "to lift the poor out of poverty". I said to offer a walkable path out of poverty.

Now some of the most interesting work on that is being done by people who were inside the congress centre. Here I learned about netaid.org, an initiative of Cisco and the UN to help fight poverty through internet giving. Here was the Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs, once known as the apostle of free-market economics in the post-communist world, but now focusing on development policies for the poorest countries. Here was Jacques Attali, with his ambitious "PlaNet Finance" project for microfinancing development through the internet. And here was Jay Naidoo, once a South African trade unionist leading the fight against apartheid. Naidoo told me how all over southern Africa there are would-be entrepreneurs unable to climb out of poverty for want of a small affordable loan. Help for self-help.

All just window-dressing for a shmoozefest of the rich? I think not. Davos is many things. It is, for example, a place where bitterly divided political actors can meet and talk. (This year there was a panel with the leaders of nearly all the Balkan countries.) Now Davos has to bring the representatives of the poor and powerless into the dialogue of the rich and powerful. This is, of course, also a place where the rich network to get richer. One can hardly expect company bosses to pay $16,000 for the privilege of networking to make the rich poorer. But one can reasonably expect more networking to make the poor richer.

It is, I suspect, above all by its ability to come up with credible answers in this direction that "Davos" will be judged in the next few years. The angry sounds of Africa have penetrated the mountain fastness, and it will take more than applause to assuage them.

The author was a Forum Fellow at this year's Davos World Economic Forum

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