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The view from Davos - Part four: The Davos agenda - more to watch

Written by Simon Maxwell

Last week, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos. This is the last of four blogs with my reflections and predictions on how the debates will be taken forward in 2008. (for the other blogs, visit 'ODI on... Davos 2008')

There was much, much else on the Davos agenda – on risk and risk management, geopolitics, global governance, web 2.0 . . .

I want to add a word about web 2.0, because it was a recurrent theme. The WEF had launched ‘the Davos Question’ on You-Tube, to which we made some excellent contributions (for ODI contributions, see our ‘ODI on... Davos 2008’ page) – but they had 2m submissions, which made it hard to get heard.

There were some Second Life people in Davos, and I had an interesting talk with the founder and CEO about using Second Life for meetings. They said it was a very good environment for meetings, and did not require a lot of bandwidth. There was help available, for example, to set up a private conference room.

The Africa session was good, with the President of Nigeria, the head of the IFC and the CEO of de Beers talking up the Continent, and with Paul Collier providing encouragement but also reasons for caution if global growth slowed and if commodity revenues were not used well.

I went to an extended breakfast to hear President Musharraf. His key theme was that Pakistan had won the cold war for the west, in the 1980s in Afghanistan, arming the mujaheddin and the Taleban in the process, but that we had bungled the end-game. He promised free elections, but was defensive on the justices being under house-arrest. I talked to a number of people about how foreign policy and development connect, distributing copies of my Opinion piece as I went.

A large, interactive plenary workshop on priorities and risks for 2008 of course focused on financial issues, but interestingly concluded that the main problem was the poor state of global governance and institutions. That chimed with Gordon Brown’s call in the plenary hall, picking up themes from his Mansion House and India speeches on the need for global governance reform to be at the top of the agenda in 2008. This is the IMF acting as global central bank, the World Bank being the environment bank, delivering public goods, India on the Security Council, one-UN, integrating emergency and development in post-conflict, the new fund to provide police and judiciary etc...

Global institutional reform was the other big story of Davos. This is about formal inter-governmental institutions, but also about multi-stakeholder initiatives of the kind so evident in Davos. How effective are these? How accountable?

I thought the focus on financial melt-down was predictable but incomplete – the real risk is if we get a financial crisis compounded by a terrorist attack or a bird flu epidemic or a crisis in the Middle East, or something else. That would really test the machinery for joined-up government and the international institutions. The WEF annual risk analysis is a good reference for those of us interested in scenario planning.

Pondering this, I’m walking down the promenade in Davos, between the conference centre and the hotel, gazing at the snow-covered mountains, and wondering whether the sharpshooter stationed on the roof of the Belvedere hotel is feeling cold, when a woman stops me and greets me. She looks vaguely familiar, so of course I say how delighted I am to see her again, reach into my pocket for the obligatory business card, and hope desperately for a clue as to which UN agency she is head of, or which social enterprise she founded, or which Silicon Valley start-up. Anyway, she looks me firmly in the eye and says ‘Do you always tell the truth?’, and I’m just thinking 'Aha! Transparency International', when it turns out she is part of a protest programme, that I don’t know her from Adam, and that if I’m not careful, I’ll be stuck there for the rest of the afternoon. Risk comes in many forms...