Davos' humanitarian moment

By Raj Kumar 18 January 2016

A session during 2007’s World Economic Forum annual meeting held in Davos, Switzerland. Photo by: E.T. Studhalter / WEF / CC BY-NC-SA

Davos has its detractors, including some in our community. It’s partly the incongruous clinking of champagne while discussing deprivation, partly the celebratory atmosphere around money and power in an era of inequality.

But as business and world leaders gather in the Swiss ski town this week, it’s remarkable how much we — the global development and humanitarian community — need the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting. This year especially. Here’s why.

There is lots of good happening in the world at the macro level as Steven Radelet compellingly argues in his new book, “The Great Surge.” Poverty is down, longevity is up. In the broad sweep of human history, things are decidedly getting better.

But you’d have to be a zen master to not feel the emotional weight of today’s growing terrorism and conflict, fleeing refugees, and rising seas. There’s anxiety in much of the world today and that feeds support for the likes of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Development and humanitarian professionals who seek to bring people together to improve and save lives can be excused for feeling outgunned.

Here’s where Davos becomes of particular importance. It’s conventional wisdom now that traditional corporate social responsibility is yesterday’s idea. Today’s global corporations are becoming more focused, more strategic when it comes to their social impact. They don’t write charitable checks to show they’re good guys or get a board seat at the local museum: instead, increasingly, they support smallholder farmers a world away from their headquarters in order to shore up their own supply chain.

In other words, today’s corporate responsibility is all about connecting core business to impact. That’s great in that it can create a virtuous cycle wherein companies invest more in making a social impact because it redounds to the benefit of their bottom line.

But this idea of focusing narrowly on your own supply chains, markets, and employees has a limit. Because after all, companies have to live in the broader world too. Just because Syria or the Central African Republic aren’t major markets for a particular business shouldn’t mean that the crisis there is exclusively someone else’s problem. And to me, this is the critical idea that will come out of Davos this year.

Read about last year’s World Economic Forum:

Devex @Davos

At this week's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, an unlikely coalition of leaders is gathering to find ways to better engage the private sector in global relief and development. A commentary from Davos by Devex President and Editor-in-Chief Raj Kumar, who chairs WEF's new Global Agenda Council on Humanitarian Response.

With the refugee crisis in Europe, suddenly humanitarian issues have taken on a higher profile in the world. For humanitarians, this is bittersweet: I’ve heard aid workers grumble that no one paid attention when the United Nations declared five Level 3 emergencies, or when the number of refugees in the world topped 50 million. It wasn’t until refugees began showing up in places like Berlin that the world took notice. It’s true, but nonetheless the reality today is that humanitarian issues are center stage in the rich world, and that has created an opportunity.

The World Economic Forum has clearly decided to step up on these issues. I chair the WEF’s humanitarian council, a voluntary collective of NGO heads and corporate executives. From that vantage point, I’ve seen how the WEF has been shaping the Davos agenda to send the message that humanitarian issues are matters not just for U.N. agencies but for corporate boardrooms the world over too.

At this year’s Davos, there’s a small but central “humanitarian hub” inside the main conference hall that’s dedicated to a stream of sessions on everything from fragility to migration to humanitarian financing. A session on how satellites can be a game-changer for humanitarian response, which Lockheed Martin Space Systems’ head Richard Ambrose and I are leading, is emblematic in that it brings together humanitarian organizations with satellite companies. And the broader Davos agenda includes a range of events that get corporate executives and world leaders on stage talking about humanitarian issues, often with people like U.S. Agency for International Development’s Gayle Smith, the International Committee of the Red Cross’s Peter Maurer, PATH’s Steve Davis, and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Stephen O’Brien. ONE’s Michael Elliott will have a high-profile role, as will Hamdi Ulukaya, the billionaire founder of the yogurt brand Chobani who has pledged half his wealth to support refugees.

The annual meeting in Davos has long been a part of the global development calendar, and NGO executives and U.N. chiefs have been going there for years. What’s new is the WEF’s particular focus on humanitarian issues as a top priority for the global agenda. And what might come from the WEF’s beating the humanitarian drum? Perhaps a higher bar. Corporate CEOs in attendance will be asking themselves and their deputies what their own companies are doing about humanitarian crises.  WEF member companies that have stepped-up — UPS and MasterCard come to mind, but there are several others —  will become case studies for those who haven’t yet determined how they can support a humanitarian system stretched to its breaking point by the growing number and severity of crises.

And this higher bar isn’t just about more corporate philanthropy. The WEF’s humanitarian council has identified at least two major areas where companies can invest, build business, and make a game-changing difference for humanitarian response. One area is humanitarian payments; the other is leveraging the tools satellites give us; and there are many more.

But what’s needed now — and what the WEF is uniquely suited to do — is to create a kind of positive competition in the business sector.  To encourage companies and world leaders to add and elevate humanitarian crises on their list of priorities, and to demonstrate how they can productively engage. It shouldn’t take refugees on Europe’s shores to open the world’s eyes to what’s happening, and after this year’s gathering in that Swiss ski town, perhaps it won’t again.

Get the inside track on humanitarian and development issues at Davos by following Raj on Twitter @raj_devex and stay tuned for more Davos coverage on devex.com.

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About the author

Raj kumardevex
Raj Kumarraj_devex

Raj Kumar is the founding president and editor-in-chief of Devex, the media platform for the global development community. A social entrepreneur and digital media executive, he chairs the Humanitarian Council of the World Economic Forum and is a member of the Clinton Global Initiative and the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community.


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