Turning Tables

Once each year, the quiet and spectacularly beautiful Swiss mountain village of Davos is taken over by top business and political leaders from around the globe for the World Economic Forum. The motto of the event is “Committed to Improving the State of the World.” This year’s meeting saw 1,200 of the world’s leaders of governments, corporations, and civil society gathered, carefully protected by 8,000 security personnel. The topics were wide-ranging, the panelists among the most famous people in the world, the discussions often quite provocative.

The kind of globalization that drives for unbridled economic growth and unlimited corporate profits, while imposing financial conditionality on poor countries—often to their detriment—has been a persistent problem for real development in the global South, and an offense to the requirements of justice. The many sessions I attended included a serious critique of those practices and structural problems, especially in regard to the crises of global health care and extreme poverty. That was a sign of hope.

Since Sept. 11, a few religious leaders have been invited to join the conversation, creating interfaith dialogue to breach dangerous divides and add broader moral and ethical perspectives. During a “West-Islamic World Dialogue” meeting, participants said they hoped to “understand the differences and affirm the commonalities.” This year, 24 religious leaders came from around the world, including six of us from the United States, to talk with each other and with the business and political leaders. The group was convened each day by Dr. George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and then dispersed to listen and present to the many interactive sessions.

I was encouraged by the frank conversations about global poverty and disease, which so adversely affect the world’s poorest people. One session pointed out that of the 10 million children who die every year, one quarter could be saved by the vaccinations that routinely prevent diseases in developed countries but are still not widely available in developing nations. About a 20-year gap exists between when new lifesaving and life-enhancing drugs are introduced in the rich and poor parts of the world, and the difference in life expectancy between the two is now a shocking 40 years. Bill Gates pointed to the “market failures” of a health-care system that caters to the rich world and called for “grand risk-taking” to save lives. It was impressive to see how the world’s greatest architect of computer software has so thoroughly educated himself on the world’s greatest health crises and begun to invest so much of his fortune and of himself in finding answers.

IN AN EXTRAORDINARY session on “Next Steps for Africa,” panelists spoke of 2005 as a year of promises, but that 2006 must become a year of delivery and of monitoring those commitments. Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo offered a consistent prophetic voice as a leading African reformer who has courageously taken on both the corruption in his own country and the corruption in the dealings of wealthy nations and companies. Irish musician and activist Bono spoke strongly about the need for trade justice if impoverished nations are ever going to escape poverty, and called for “preferential treatment” for the poorest countries. He said agricultural subsidies in the West, which allocate to every European cow the equivalent of $2 a day, could make Africans living on less than $1 a day wish they were cows instead of people. And Gordon Brown, British Chancellor of the Exchequer, quoted Martin Luther King Jr. in hoping that the “promissory note” of Western pledges for development would not end with “insufficient funds,” and offered his creative vision of innovative financing to meet the most urgent global needs—such as universal education and health care for the world’s most vulnerable children.

In her opening address, new German Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to honor her county’s development aid pledge of 0.7 percent of its GDP, despite domestic pressures to renege on that commitment. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz didn’t speak to U.S. commitments, but acknowledged that many problems in development in poor countries still exist, such as start-up business fees in many places of up to $500. These, he said, would only be “an expensive lunch” for many of the people at Davos, but a tremendous obstacle for most of the world’s people.

I spoke to a session called “Should We Despair of Disparities?”—where I explained that the biblical prophets only rose up when inequality became a societal problem (as it is today)—and to another titled, “The Hand of God in U.S. Politics,” in which many Europeans were relieved to hear that the Religious Right isn’t the only faith-inspired movement in America. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, and I met for the first time in Davos and found that we shared many common commitments. We talked at length about how the “pastoral agenda” and the “prophetic agenda” for the churches could complement each other in the struggle to overcome poverty.

Many of the likely 2008 candidates for U.S. president were on hand, including Sens. John McCain and John Kerry and former Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia. Former President Bill Clinton packed the house when he spoke of the three greatest threats in the world today—global climate change, social and economic inequality, and religious and cultural conflict—but called the assembly of talented and powerful people to believe these problems have solutions if we work hard and persevere.

Among those gathered at Davos were an impressive and hopeful collection of emerging leaders and social entrepreneurs who are already making a real difference. I met one of them at a session on “delivering services and doing good”—a young Swiss man named Pierre Tami who became a Christian and went to Cambodia where he began to work with women and children caught up in sex trafficking. In 12 years, Hagar, the Christian development organization he founded, has touched the lives of 100,000 women, many of whom have been freed from sexual slavery and have found new ways to live and work through a myriad of successful small businesses. After I spoke to the group, Tami told me, “I know who you are—I get SojoMail!”

Davos is the ultimate networking experience, and the religious community is playing a greater role in this global town meeting. One Christian leader commented that he believed Jesus would have come to Davos if he were invited. A nearby rabbi whispered under his breath, “But I’ll bet he would have overturned a few tables.” Indeed.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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