Davos 2012: Alternative voices on how to fix the world economy

A man makes an Igloo The "occupy" camp in Davos was small and made up of Igloos and tents

In a car park at one of the world's premier Swiss ski resorts a small number of "occupiers" have erected seven igloos and two yurts.

They are protesting against the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos, where the rich, powerful and influential go every year to discuss the world economy.

This year's theme is The Great Transformation, with sessions on rethinking capitalism, reducing inequality and solving Europe's financial crisis.

But the occupiers are not convinced and despite the event's apparent enthusiasm for change, they say their ideas have been left out in the proverbial (Alpine) cold.

An attempt by the conference's organiser, Klaus Schwab, to arrange a meeting on Saturday apparently failed after the two sides could not agree a location.

Instead a group of topless women from Ukrainian protest group, Femen, tried to scale the Davos gates accusing those inside of being "gangsters," who had caused the financial crisis.

Conventional
Kumi Naidoo Greenpeace's Kumi Naidoo was one alternative voice at the conference

The conference did invite some sympathetic to the protesters, including Greenpeace's executive director, Kumi Naidoo.

But he didn't accept the summit's "transformational" rhetoric.

"It's more about system recovery than system redesign," he said.

Start Quote

I understand there are not a lot of women running hedge funds, but in that case change your category, maybe don't only have CEOs.”

End Quote Professor Anya Schiffrin Columbia University

"Of course it's total conventional wisdom. It's like reading the Op Ed columns of the New York Times for five days," says Professor Anya Schiffirn, an academic at Columbia University who attended the summit and is also editing a book about the Occupy movement.

It is also a wisdom which is propagated largely by men.

This year, Davos set itself a target of achieving 25% female participation. It managed 17%.

"I do blame them," says Prof Schiffrin.

"We all know if you want to diversify you have to make an effort. I understand there are not a lot of women running hedge funds. But in that case change your category, maybe don't only have CEOs."

Blame game

For some, there are other reasons to change the guest list.

"They are responsible, as individuals, as a group, for this crisis and yet nothing at all has happened to them," says Susan George, a left-wing political scientist and president of Attac France.

The group campaigns for an international financial transaction tax, a measure designed to limit short-term bets on the financial markets.

"What one has to do if you want to get out of this is socialise [nationalise] the banks partially or totally," she says.

Small businesses
Bill Gates on a big screen Bill Gates was one of many businessmen at the summit pushing social change

And the invite list of big company executives also means other business models are relatively light on the ground.

"The point isn't to call for equal representation up in the snow and mountains. But actually the economy needs different models of business to succeed," said Ed Mayo, secretary general of Co-operatives UK.

Small businesses and co-operatives make up much of the global economy, but lack a strong voice at the summit, he argues.

Mr Mayo claims co-operative models of ownership are better at tackling inequality - a major theme of this year's event.

Start Quote

The richest 400 Americans have the same wealth as the poorest 155 million people in the world.”

End Quote Stuart Wallace New Economics Foundation
Inequality

He also urges the construction of new financial models, promoting mutuals which are as less risk-taking than shareholder-owned banks.

Not everyone agrees with that analysis, but Davos attendee Stewart Wallace says radical financial reform didn't get the focus it deserved.

"[You need to] change the incentive structure so you are taxing very different things and reform the financial system in a much more fundamental way than Vickers [the UK report on banking] is looking at," said Mr Wallace, executive director of the New Economics Foundation.

Without this, Mr Wallace warns, it will be impossible to tackle global inequality.

"People are still talking as if all that is needed is equality of opportunity, free education for all, whereas we have massive structural problems. The richest 400 Americans have the same wealth as the poorest 155 million people in the world."

Green growth

A big theme of previous Davos summits has been the green economy, but this year such talk has been overshadowed by the European economic downturn and debt crisis.

Topless female protesters holding a sign saying "poor because of you" Protesters blamed delegates for the financial crisis

For Greenpeace's Mr Naidoo, delegates missed the connection between the two topics.

"Energy efficiency measures could create a huge amount of jobs in the construction sector.

"We show that the job creation potential of an emerging green economy is significantly more than the old system."

Other delegates disagree, saying progress was made, albeit mostly amongst business leaders.

"Some companies' CEOs genuinely get it, they get that we're running out of planet and running out of scarce resources," says Mr Wallace, citing Unilever, M&S and Nike as companies adopting more long term or sustainable strategies.

Start Quote

Either they are incapable and stupid or they just don't do what they say they do, there are these two possibilities and both are not very satisfying.”

End Quote Jannick Boehm Protester
Democracy

In their defence, the summit organisers point to the range of guests invited and topics covered, from food security to climate change and international trade.

"We're trying to represent diversity within a programme that takes months to put together," says WEF spokesman Adrian Monck.

"There's plenty of criticism of capitalism going on."

But for protesters the main issue is one of democratic accountability.

"These people are gathering together and see themselves as global leaders and they want to take decisions for 7bn people, but nobody has given them any mandate," says Jannick Boehm, though he accepts elected politicians are there.

Previous Davos summits, he says, have tackled issues such as food security, only to see food prices continue to increase.

"Either they are incapable and stupid or they just don't do what they say they do. There are these two possibilities and both are not very satisfying."

One of the Occupy campers outside in the snow recognises that there is no easy answer.

"The media are complaining that the Occupy movement hasn't a clear message on what they want to change," says David Roth, a young Swiss Social Democratic politician, and a member of his regional assembly.

"The clearest thing we want to change is the structure, the process of how you get to a solution, that is difficult to understand."

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