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Mahatma Gandhi at Davos

Published by Newsweek on 2000-01-01

The decisionmakers, society doyens and grassroots activists at the World Economic Forum in Davos this week are unlikely to have boned up on Mohandas K. Gandhi before their annual gathering--but they should have. In an essay that the Indian political and spiritual leader wrote well before the Forum was a gleam in founder Klaus Schwab's eye, Gandhi--the Mahatma--said: "Industrialism is going to be a curse for mankind. The world we must strive to build needs to be based on the concept of genuine social equality--in it, the prince and the peasant, the wealthy and the less well-off, the employer and the employee are on the same level. Economic progress cannot mean that few people charge ahead and more and more people are left behind."

In light of today's globalization and its consequences, Gandhi was remarkably prescient--even though he was referring to his time of infant industrialization more than a hundred years ago. Globalization may have swaddled the industrialized societies in prosperity, but there are more poor people now than ever before--a third of the global population of 6 billion have a per capita income of less than the equivalent of a dollar a day, according to the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute. Last week, in a sobering annual report card, it warned: "Economic euphoria may lead us to ignore trends that have the potential to reverse progress--from HIV/AIDS in Africa to falling water tables in India." Rapid economic growth has bludgeoned the environment in vast regions of the world, Worldwatch said, with resulting destabilization of climate, growing desertification, and shrivelling forests.

"Caught up in the growth of the Internet, we seem to have lost sight of the Earth's deteriorating health," Worldwatch's president, Lester R. Brown, said last week. "It would be a mistake to confuse the vibrancy of the virtual world with the increasingly troubled state of the real world." It is the idea of improving that real world that draws the international community's stalwarts to Davos each January--the notion, however gilded, that the privileged few can frame policies and even programs for adoption by constituencies such as business and government if they focused on the task with intensity, unhindered by the daily demands of routine.

They can be certain of three things at Davos this year: intensified security because of the scheduled presence of world leaders such as President Bill Clinton; sufficient snow to beckon bon vivants to the ski slopes; and loud protests from nongovernmental organizations who are planning major demonstrations decrying the world's growing cohort of poverty. Ironically, many of these NGOS receive generous funding from the very businesses and governments they're agitating against, funding that's often offered in the naive hope that money can modulate militancy. In 1999, rich countries gave $40 billion to poor countries in foreign aid; governments and businesses gave at least that much to civil-society organizations for "grassroots" work.

That sort of work used to imply wading through fields to plant crops, or digging water wells in villages. But the NGO doctrine has been expanded to include colorful road shows. The Davos protesters come emboldened by their success in Seattle not long ago, when they caused the ministerial meeting of the much-vilified World Trade Organization to crumble. There's a new cause around which NGOs of rich and poor countries alike are rallying--globalization, a concept that was arguably born at Davos several seasons ago when the Internet was still an incipient transformational phenomenon. That's why the Davos meeting constitutes a convenient target for disruption in otherwise tranquil Davos. It's nice to accept handouts from the overheeled, but villains are still villains in the NGO handbook.

So it won't be enough for the summiteers simply to greet, meet, and communique-ate (OK/pg). Nor will it do for the Swiss hosts to summon up intimidating threats of police force. The Forum's Professor Schwab has prudently agreed to invite into his tent representatives of diverse NGOs. But activists as well as their constituencies back home are looking for more than just dialogue and pablum. There is the definite expectation that, at this first major global parley of the new millennium, the privilegerati will fashion a new agenda for equitable development, economic and social.

What might such an action agenda consist of? Here are three ideas the Davos summiteers would do well to consider:

_ Environment. Why not a new "implementation network" to ensure that the dozens of existing global treaties and protocols are adhered to by the very nations that agreed to them at long, costly conferences? Practically all of the Fortune 500 companies have enough environmental acumen and in house expertise that could be made available to national governments. What's needed isn't more UN-type talkfests on climate change, for example, but specific steps by which localities, countries, and regions can mobilize current resources to lower pollution. That's where seconding of business personnel can be valuable--and profitable for the lenders, too, since healthier societies can more readily become stronger economies.

Infrastructure. Right now, being "wired" is largely an irrelevant notion in societies where even electricity is a luxury. Many developing-country governments have shown themselves incapable of coming up with workable plans for roads, power plants, and railroads. That's where Davos participants such as Swiss-Swedish Asea Brown Boveri, and Enron of the United States, can help. Why not empower local communities to join hands with resource-laden multinational corporations in drafting modest, culturally-sensitive infrastructure projects with relatively short gestation periods? Such projects can not only generate power but also jobs, lessening reliance on white elephant schemes favored by governments and supported by global bodies such as the World Bank.

_ Education. Developing nations, already hurt by dismaying conventional illiteracy, are now being additionally penalized by growing cyber-illiteracy. Here again, the mandarins of the Cyberage--Davos habitues such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steven Case of AOL, Larry Ellison of Oracle, Eric Schmidt of Novell--can help establish a "cyber-corps" to widen computer literacy in poor countries.

Gandhi may not have anticipated globalization and the Internet, but India's founding father foresaw how quickly developing societies could be riven by the creation of two classes--the haves and the have-nots. He always said: "Think about tomorrow, but act for today." Not a bad mantra for Davos.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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