Saturday, 29 January 2011

World Economic Forum in Davos: hopes and fears

Joost Martens (Director General, Consumers International) writes from the 2011 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

I joined about 2500 other people - leaders from government, business and civil society - for a few days in this Swiss village in the Alps. Being here you realise that Davos is about meeting people. Meeting people in many formal and informal settings, I attended big plenary sessions where heads of state like President Sarkozy talk about their view of the world. But also panel discussions with ministers and CEOs, workshop style meetings, lunch sessions, dinner meetings, nightcaps and much more.

Multiple meetings take place at the same time. Some people say that a big issue for many WEF participants is not knowing whether they should not be in another more interesting meeting that may be ongoing somewhere else. And of course, with so many government and industry leaders around, many of the meetings they have are not listed in the official programme.

Davos is about networking. It would take months of trying to get appointments with many of the people who are there, and then you may not even succeed. In Davos you approach them informally and talk for a moment or have a coffee together. For example, I confirmed with a keynote speaker for the Consumers International World Congress her participation in Hong Kong in May. I also talked about consumer protection in financial services and how the French G20 presidency will be putting it on the G20 agenda. I made arrangements for a ministerial meeting for one of our regional directors. And I talked with the secretary general of ISO about the synergies between ISO standards and the work of CI.   

Of course the contents of the meetings matters. Because there is hope and expectation that what is presented and discussed here, will impact positively upon the state of the world (the WEF slogan is ‘Committed to improving the state of the world’). The consumer interest is present under many headings. To name a few: The International Financial System: Back on Track?; The New Reality of Consumer Power; The New Reality of Climate Change.; Young Consumers: Young People versus Old Models.; Rewiring the Responsible Enterprise.; and The New Reality of a Sustainable Lifestyle.

I have tried to bring in CI’s experience and knowledge into the main issues that concern consumers and are relevant to consumer organisations. This was possible in relation to our work on the financial sector, where we ask for less complexity of the services that are on the market. Also on empowering consumers, where it is not about giving more and more information to consumers. We ask from governments and industry to make sure that what is on the shelves is not ‘toxic’, but safe and sustainable. 

Food prices
An issue that scares most, in what I heard and picked up, is the risk around rising commodity prices, especially food. This can have future consequences on access to food for poor consumers, which is a dark perspective. 

Technology hope
On the other hand, a clear sign of hope came from talking about the incredible power and possibilities of communications, of mobile technologies and digital applications. I attended a session on ‘digital convergence’ that gave a sense of what is around the corner of possibilities for mobile phone use - in different ways for consumers from developed economies and from emerging and developing economies.

So there are both signs of concern and signs of hope from the meetings in the Alps.

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