I just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is held each year. Leaders from business, government, and civil society all gather here to engage each other, make connections, and, hopefully, make progress on the mission statement of the WEF: “Committed to Improving the State of the World.”
I reflected on that mission statement last year in my remarks to all the attendees at the event’s closing session. I said the deeper meaning of leadership is sacrifice and not just skills — and that the most included people on the planet who were sitting in that famous Congress Hall will be morally evaluated by their relationship to the most excluded, who, of course, are never in that grand auditorium. Many individual leaders in attendance wanted to discuss that challenge further, and those conversations continued this year.
One session this year that drew many people off site was called “Struggle for Survival” — an intense simulation of how 3 billion people in our world actually live each day. Half of the global population exists on less than $2 per day. Run by the Crossroads Foundation, Struggle for Survival was a much more emotional experience than the rest of the sessions at Davos.
My wife, Joy, and I participated in this simulation, and the people running it told us that several CEOs seemed quite affected by the very powerful dramatization of real-world injustice and poverty. It took people out of their heads into stunning revelations of how the excluded really live, prompting feelings of guilt, pain, anger, empathy, and compassion — and then a call to commitment.
This week, there was a lot of commentary about the State of the Union, the title of the president’s annual January speech before a joint session of Congress. I thought it was one of Obama’s best addresses recently because he focused on what is real for this country — growing economic inequality where only a few are doing “spectacularly well” while many families are still struggling just to get by.
The wife and mother from one of those families wrote the president a letter that seemed to have moved him, so he lifted up her “tight-knit family” trying to get through “hard times,” as she sat up in the gallery next to first lady Michelle Obama. Her family became a parable for the nation that is starting to do better economically but still faces hard choices that the president sought to address with very practical suggestions to support what he called “middle class economics."
Obama’s proposals for shifting tax breaks from the very wealthy to the middle class, to make possible child tax credits, days for sick leave, assistance with child care, and some relief from expensive educational costs are all proposals not likely to be supported by the new Republican Congress. But the speech begins to set what could be a long-term agenda to deal with our massive economic inequality — finally. Even the Republicans now might have to face up to the increasingly visible, embarrassing, alarming, and morally indefensible gaps between a small elite and the rest of the country.
Listen as Jim Wallis talks to Sojourners CEO Rob Wilson-Black about giving the send-off speech on values at the World Economic Forum, where the pair brushed shoulders with some of the most prominent business minds. Here's a brief look at what Jim was trying to do with his talk:
"The pope reminded us about the excluded. This gathering is the most included gathering in the world. You are the most included people in the global economy. How will the most included reach out to the most excluded and bring them in to the global economy? That's what I want [World Economic Forum attendees] to ask themselves."
"We are perhaps among the most included in this global economy. So how will the most included reach out to the most excluded this year?"
Editor’s Note: The following text and video is from Jim Wallis’ closing talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling those in positions of leadership to implement values that benefit the common good.
In our opening session for this 2014 annual meeting, we heard a letter read to us from Pope Francis, a leader who has captured the attention of the world. He called us here to “deeper reflection” and to “reshaping the world.” He said something quite striking, “I ask you to insure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it.”
So, to that deeper reflection: I believe that for many of us here at Davos, there was a moment — a remark from a session, a smaller discussion, a meal interaction, a personal conversation, or a walk in the snow — that made us think and feel some things we don’t normally focus on in our day-to-day environment back home. It could have been an insight, a new angle or framework, a challenge, or a reminder of things lost — something that struck you more deeply than just more talk and made an impact on you. Often these insightful moments are about our values, or challenge our values, or bring us back to a moral compass that we have, or would like to have, or miss from earlier in our lives.
In the past 20 years, the world has witnessed the death of social contracts. We have seen a massive breakdown in trust between citizens, their economies, and their governments. In our own country, we can point to years of data painting a bleak picture of the confidence Americans have in any of our traditional institutions.
Former assumptions and shared notions about fairness, agreements, reciprocity, mutual benefits, social values, and expected futures have all but disappeared. The collapse of financial systems and the resulting economic crisis not only have caused instability, insecurity, and human pain; they have also generated a growing disbelief and fundamental distrust in the way things operate and how decisions are made.
This week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, we are looking to the future and asking “what now?” At a Saturday session — “The Moral Economy: From Social Contract to Social Covenant” — a document will kick off a year-long global conversation about a new “social covenant” between citizens, governments, and businesses.
This is really “a call” for worldwide discussion about what values are needed to address the many difficult challenges and choices the world is now facing. Inequality, austerity, retrenchment, constraints, mal-distribution, growing conflicts over resources, and extreme poverty all raise questions about our values.
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"‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.'"
~ Matthew 5:21 (NRSV)
Because it's never too late to say thank you, I didn't want to let the best news I heard out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last week go unnoticed or unacknowleged.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, announced during the forum that they would inject an additional $750 million into the United Nation's Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a public-private organization founded a decade ago to combat three of the world's most devastating diseases that have claimed millions of lives, particularly among the poorest of the poor in the developing world.
The Gates' new gift joins more than $650 million the couple already has given to the Global Fund since its inception. And their latest gesture of epic generosity couldn't come at a more opportune time, especially after news (a few days before the Gates' announcement at Davos) that the fund's executive director, Michel Kazatchkine, was stepping down from his post early, amidst allegations of misuse of funds and cutbacks in funding.
Occupy igloos ... and rooftops. Buy a gun for the one you love ... or a walk-on role on True Blood (for charity!) Theological wisdom from the mouths of (muppet) otters and stand-up comedians. And you never know what you'll find on Google Earth.