Author/s: Nicola Bullard

By Nicola Bullard
They say that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Well, in the land of Davos, George Soros is an honest man. Or so it seemed by the end of the now almost-famous Porto Alegre-Davos debate — a high-tech, low-budget satellite link connecting the chilly capitalism of Switzerland with the red-hot radicalism of Rio Grande du Sul.

In public relations terms it was a triumph for the people. In Davos, we saw four white men in grey suits shivering in a gloomy church. And in Porto Alegre, a Bennetton-ad panorama of ages, races, languages, men and women in a crowded auditorium.

Given the balance of forces, what should have been a first round knockout for the Porto Alegre hard-hitters, turned into a long slug. Partly because the Porto Alegre panelists were not listening to the undercurrents of the debate and missed some golden opportunities (always easier to see from the outside, of course). But also because the other side simply oozed sticky sincerity. They were there to “dialogue.”

All except George Soros, that is, who was honest to the point of blunt. At the outset he insisted “…I think I should clarify that there is a Davos. But, I think that we sitting here are perhaps not the best representatives of Davos, because if we were, we probably wouldn’t be here.” Which is a rather convoluted way of saying, first, that the ‘real’ Davos doesn’t give a damn about what the people in Porto Alegre think and, second, that Soros didn’t want to be seen as the voice of Davos.

It’s not so easy to rewrite history, of course. For most people George Soros is the symbol par excellence of global finance, the maestro of the hedge fund, with a fabulous fortune accumulated by currency speculation (and now being “whitewashed” through his philanthropic activities).

But even if Soros saw the downside of assuming the Davos mantle, his co-panelists seemed to have no qualms. Mark Malloch Brown, boss of UNDP and former chief of World Bank public relations and John Ruggie, special adviser to Kofi Annan, seemed quite happy to be associated with Davos, as did Bjorn Edlund, head of corporate communications for the Swedish-Swiss transnational corporation ABB.

Mr Edlund, too, has his UN connection. Just that day, Kofi Annan had told his “colleagues” in Davos that Goran Lindahl (ABB’s retiring CEO and Mr Edland’s former boss) would be “leading the corporate recruitment effort and providing strategic guidance” as Annan’s special adviser on the Global Compact. (1) According to Annan “(Lindahl) brings to this challenge not only a very successful business career, but also a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility and citizenship.”

We could also add that he brings a vast experience of large-scale dam and power generation projects, but that might be churlish. After all ABB sold its embarrassing stake in the Three Gorges project and Malaysia’s huge Bakun dam, in which ABB was the major partner, was shelved by the government after the financial crash of 1997.

But maybe the corporate leopard can change his spots?

Yes, according to John Ruggie who told the audience in Porto Alegre that the Global Compact “…is an example of progressive change… of how one can make a difference even if only in small steps,” adding (no doubt to establish his progressive credentials) “I believe it was Chairman Mao who said that every long march begins with a small step.”

No way, according to Soros. “Let me differ from you a little bit on the Global Compact,” Soros said turning to Ruggie. “I think it is well intended, but it does have an element of whitewash or blue-wash in it. I know that you are full of good will and I recognise your sincerity. But it’s very hard for business to sort of step out of its skin. Business is basically run for profit…”

Unfortunately this gift was squandered by the Porto Alegre panelists who were too busy building up their indignation at not being given enough speaking time. It would have been fun to see some internal squabbling.

And Soros’s candour didn’t stop there. When challenged by Le Monde Diplomatique editor Bernard Cassen to “take a petition into Davos” and enlist support for the cancellation of Third World debt, a Tobin Tax and a ban on tax havens, Soros admitted, “We would probably not collect too many signatures. …we are not representatives of Davos here so I don’t think it will be too successful in getting signatures. “

But the other three made no attempt to distance themselves from Davos and all it stands for. They were the willing emissaries to the frontline engaging with the anti-globalisation enemies. Which raises some questions: why would two very senior UN staff front for Davos? Is the Global Compact their only answer to the critics? Why assume the burden of Davos when the World Economic Forum itself not only refused to formally join the debate but also refused press accreditation to the programme producer Patrice Barrat?

Yet the Davos panelists felt that they had been unfairly attacked and misunderstood. They had come – in good faith they said — to “dialogue.”

The confrontational, demanding and uncompromising positions forcefully put by the Porto Alegre panelists were clearly outside the gentlemanly rules of “dialogue.” But there is no way that the Financial Times would headline the “Attack on Planet Davos” if people had been nice to each other.

Soros, Malloch Brown and others may think that we can sit down and “dialogue” but as Raj Patel says in his article (above) ” ‘dialogue’ itself favours the very status quo that protesters wish to overturn.”

And a footnote to the WSF organisers…

For all the frustrations and lost opportunities in the debate, the World Social Forum organising committee could learn a lot from the carefully considered gender, age, racial and language diversity of the satellite debate. This group reflected both the actual and imagined “spirit of Porto Alegre” in contrast to the bizarre opening press conference which was like a scene from the Last Supper: twelve bearded men (and one without) seated at a long table. One woman upset the Biblical simplicity. “If this is the future,” I thought, “then count me out.” Fortunately, things got better, a lot better. But more on that another time, or read Naomi Klein’s “A fete for the end of history” in The Nation, 19 March (www.thenation.com).

* Nicola Bullard works with Focus on the Global South in Bangkok.

(1) The Global Compact is a non-binding, non-enforceable and voluntary set of principles supported by various trade unions, NGOs, business associations and corporations. For more on the Global Compact see www.corpwatch.org