The WEF was born at the initiative of one person -Prof Klaus Schwab. With single-minded determination, he pursued the business leaders of the world and convinced them that there was value in meeting annually at one place and in networking. When the businessmen and women flocked to Davos (a ski resort in the mountains of Switzerland), Prof Schwab cast his net wider to attract economists, academics, litterateurs and, finally, the politicians. He achieved remarkable success. Virtually inventing the concept of parallel sessions, he was able to offer something to everyone every day. If nothing interested you on a particular day, there is always good food, excellent wine and skiing!
The WEFs peak years were the 90s. I have attended several annual sessions as a minister, as an MP and as a special invitee. In the space of five minutes, one is likely to run into half-a-dozen presidents or prime ministers, a handful of Nobel laureates, several finance ministers and a variety of people who have distinguished themselves in different walks of life. Every colour and every religion is represented in Davos. The best sessions are the ones reserved for the presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers and finance ministers, spread over three days. It is fascinating to see the working of the minds of the worlds political leaders, their strengths and weaknesses and their vulnerability to the political twists and turns in their home country. Democracies send in different representatives in different years; only dictatorships send in the same ministers year after year.
It is easy to dismiss the WEF as a club of the rich and the powerful and their concerns as phoney and hypocritical. That would be far from the truth. Many political leaders as also many business leaders share the goal of making the world a better, safer and more just place. Many of them try hard to achieve these goals in their home countries. Some succeed, some fail. At the same time, Davos also attracts a number of dictators, corrupt politicians and scheming businessmen. The WEF is not a judge of political or business morality, it simply reflects the current reality.
The WEFs novelty has obviously diminished. The Indian media, for example, gives no more than a few column inches of space to report on the WEF. But it has come as a mild surprise to me that the World Social Forum got nearly a full page coverage in English dailies in the country. Some of their concerns, I believe, deserve wide coverage.
The more I read about the proceedings of the WSF, the more I am reminded of the WEF. Some of the concerns of the two fora are the same - protecting the environment, water as a resource, the danger posed by regional wars and conflicts.
Some of the speeches that were made at the WSF could just as well have been made at the WEF. The difference between the two would have been only in the speakers dress codes!
It is true that at the WSF there are more people who represent the poor and the oppressed. It is also true that at the WEF there is a significant number whose interests are selfish and narrow. Yet, in my view, that does not make the one the enemy of the other.
The WEF is right when it says that creation of wealth is the highest and most important pursuit of mankind. Without the kind of wealth that was created during the 20th century, the world would have had more famines, more starvation, more diseases and more deaths. The 21st century too must be an age for creation of wealth. If that process is halted for any reason, close to 4 billion people (and of that 300 million are in India) will be condemned to live in poverty. The world, and particularly the poor nations of the world, need the wealth creators.
The WSF is right when it says that the creation of wealth must not be at the cost of the poor or of the environment or of the worlds non-renewable resources. Nor can the world ignore the rapacity of some of the worlds giant corporations. The poor nations must have an honourable place around the table, and when IMF or World Bank or WTO devise their strategies they must reflect the concerns of the poor nations. Is there no meeting ground for the WSF and the WEF I believe there is, and that is sustainable development.
Another meeting ground is democracy. At Cancun, the rich countries that dominated WTO were forced to listen to the voice of the developing countries because, it was the voice of democracies and also because the voice was raised not against international trade but for fairness in international trade. The WSF will lose its relevance if it becomes simply a protest movement. Likewise, the WEF will lose its influences if it simply echoes the ambitions (without responsibility) of large corporations.
A case in point is the drawal of water by Coke and Pepsi to make their soft drinks. Ground water is a precious natural resource. Fortunately, it is a renewable resource. Yet, in many parts of the world, because of disastrous policies or poor governance, water is becoming a scarce resource. When a multi-national corporations like Coke or Pepsi sets up a plant in a village and draws water, the stage is set for an epic battle. The villagers will not allow the plant to draw underground water and the company will assert its legal rights as the owner of the surface of the land and of all things lying below that surface. The two points of view are not irreconcilable. Kerala, the state where the battle lines are drawn now, gets enough rain. But a large part of the water in the states rivers flows into the sea. Thanks to indiscriminate construction, channels and watercourses are blocked. Good governance will, and can, find the right answer, which is to ensure that ground water sources are recharged and the water that is drawn for use is shared for domestic use, farming and industry in a just and fair manner.
We need both WSF and WEF, and we also need a forum to explore the common ground between the two fora.
The author is a former Union finance minister