Why the Social Impact Sector Needs a ‘Bizarro Davos’: A Modest Proposal That Nobody Will Like
It’s that time of year again: Time to wade through the flood of Davos coverage. Like every year, it has ranged from hopeful to scornful. Reporters have followed the biggest storylines, commentators have competed for the hottest takes. Anand Ghirandaras has trolled somebody even richer than himself – oh look, there he is now.
Lost in the noise are a few simple truths:
- It’s a little too easy to hate on Davos – though the elite who attend seem determined to make it even easier.
- It’s harder to recognize our own role in perpetuating – and benefiting from – the unjust systems we criticize.
- We need an alternative to this annual ritual: Elite meetings and snarky put-downs aren’t changing anything – and meanwhile, a laundry list of global crises grow more serious by the day.
The Very Rich: Not So Different From You and Me?
Certainly, Davos isn’t doing the uber-wealthy any favors from a public relations standpoint. Even the most died-in-the-wool free marketeer likely cringed while watching a room full of millionaires chuckle about the possibility of paying more taxes. Yet boosting taxes on the super-rich, satisfying and helpful as it may be, isn’t going to provide all the revenue the world needs to tackle the generational challenges we face. And it isn’t going to do a thing to change the many ways the rest of us – mainstream, middle class citizens in countries around the world – are making those challenges worse.
Almost 60 percent of U.S. voters are in favor of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal of a 70 percent tax rate on income above $10 million to pay for a “Green New Deal.” But ask those same people if they’d agree to pay substantially higher taxes themselves to help reduce inequality or fight climate change, and you’d likely get a different answer. Ask them – or better yet, ask yourself – if you’d be willing to cut out most plastic packaging from your life to save the oceans. Or to move to a smaller home and take the bus to work each day to fight global warming. How much, if any, of your comfort and convenience would you sacrifice for the benefit of the poor or the environment? Bashing the ultra-wealthy is good for a laugh and costs us nothing. But once the conversation shifts to the sacrifices the rest of us may need to make, the rationalizations (and sometimes the rioting) start.
A Modest Proposal (That Nobody Will Like)
This sad reality hits me every time I attend a global development conference. No, they’re not as glitzy as Davos – but they still tend to be pretty high-brow. They’re generally held in a scenic locale. The catering looks and tastes expensive. The attendees are well-dressed, and the keynote speakers are often shuttled around like celebrities. After they’re over, copious amounts of alcohol are usually served.
Is this the way for a sector focused on alleviating poverty to “be the change you wish to see in the world”? Does this give us any standing to get outraged when attendees at Davos take the same approach and turn it up to 11? Wouldn’t it be more in keeping with our sector’s mission to take this conference template and reverse it? We could call it “Bizarro Davos,” like the “Bizarro World” in comic books, where everything is the exact opposite of reality. Here’s how such an event might be organized:
- First, hold it in a working class city – think Detroit, not San Francisco. If tourism is a core industry there, look elsewhere.
- Make the tickets affordable to ordinary people earning average salaries.
- Serve the kind of food local people eat – the words “organic” and “artisanal” should not appear on the menu.
- Encourage attendees to stay with local residents if possible – even if it’s just at AirBnBs – rather than retreating to some high-end hotel each night. And instead of organizing after-parties and “wine down” events exclusively for ticket holders and held at the conference venue, encourage people to go out and patronize local businesses – and talk to community members – as much as possible.
- Most importantly, stop giving top billing to the same slate of speakers that crops up continually at development events – many of whom wouldn’t feel out of place at Davos itself. Instead, give the keynote slots to regular people doing extraordinary work on a shoestring budget – or making a living despite equally extraordinary challenges. Rather than Deval Patrick, let’s hear from a Kenyan smallholder trying to expand and professionalize her farm. Instead of Jeffrey Sachs, let’s listen to a North Dakota oil worker hoping to move toward a clean energy economy without losing his livelihood. Put the millionaires into the audience, not onto the stage: We already know what they think – it’s time to pass the mic.
Would this solve the global problems we’re all struggling with? No. Would it lead to a dramatically different type of conversation than the ones we’re having? Yes. And attendees might come away from the event with a new perspective on how these problems impact real people, and some new ideas for how to help – while giving some traditionally overlooked voices a rare opportunity to help drive the discourse.
Certainly, a “Bizarro Davos” would be extremely challenging to organize – and to attend – which is why this approach will never gain traction, even in the impact sector (though some events, to their credit, have made movements in that direction). I doubt most of us would be eager to attend such a conference, conditioned as we are to expect a bit of luxury in exchange for our costly tickets – and I confess, I’d likely feel the same way.
But if even the socially conscious development crowd is unwilling to forgo some luxuries for a few days, why would the global elite – or the family down the street – be willing to make more substantial and permanent sacrifices? Until someone has a good answer to that question, the Davos outrage cycle – and the societal impasse it represents – seem destined to continue.
James Militzer is an editor at NextBillion.
Photo via Pexels.