January 27, 2008
Davos people going about their business may have more to teach us than the rich and powerful.
When your lips start to crack after being outside for twenty seconds, you know you should be inside like the locals, necking gluhwein and wolfing fondue.
There are two sets of faces in Davos. One comprises the famous, disturbingly familiar faces of the likes of Bill Gates and Condoleezza Rice, and the other is made up of the locals, shuffling around in the snow.
In fact, the nonchalant reaction of the locals to the annual pilgrimage of the world’s elite to this tiny, freezing Swiss village is one of the more interesting aspects of Davos.
Maybe this is because these are mountain people who seem to take their chances, see the upside in things and get on with it.
The religious and linguistic patchwork of hamlets around Davos reveals just how cut off these people were from each other over centuries. The village I am staying in is an evangelical hamlet, yet just down the road – or, more accurately, over the next mountain, a distance of only five miles – is a Catholic village. Beyond it again is another Protestant village, and so on throughout this beautiful part of the Alps.
Similarly, both Swiss German and the distinct Alpine language of Romansh are spoken alternately. Some villages are Romansh-speaking, others pure German. This cultural patchwork quilt, not a homogenous melting pot, is the result of years of isolation due to the vagaries of geography.
Before the Swiss government blasted immense tunnels and drove dramatic cliff-hugging train lines through the rocks, these villages existed side-by-side; separated by huge mountains, yet joined by gushing Alpine rivers which served as a trading and communication network for years. Separation allowed unique cantonal differences to emerge and solidify.
This very robustness allows the villagers to be welcoming to the world’s elite, without either being fawning or frosty.
As far as you can make out, their view of the World Economic Forum is that Tony Blair, Henry Kissinger, Al Gore and Bono may come and go, but the locals will be left here with their mountains, valleys and rivers, to make the best of the opportunities that come their way, as they have being doing for generations.
When you examine the recent economic history of the locality in greater depth, the opportunistic nature of the locals becomes apparent.
About one hundred years ago, wealthy (mainly German) tuberculosis patients realised that the clear air of the Alps could ease their suffering, so Davos became a large sanatorium.
There are still 12 respiratory clinics in the town, the locals having realised there was a good industry to be developed in healthcare. The very natural factors which had kept these people separate and isolated for years had propelled them forward financially.
Then, mountains, cold winters and snow suddenly became even more valuable. The town became a skiing Mecca and, again, the locals reacted to this opportunity.
Today, the visitors at the World Economic Forum, which has been held in Davos since 1971, represent just the next opportunity, so the town has been neither overawed nor underwhelmed.
The locals realise that globalisation and the arrival of foreign money, ideas and people have made them rich, but, at the same time, they have preserved their deep culture. They have achieved the fusion of being open and flexible without being overwhelmed. They are cosmopolitan and grounded at once.
This, for the organisers of the Davos forum, is the global model they are trying to articulate. When you listen to the speeches here, there is very much a one-world bias.
The world cosmopolitan elite who gather here are interesting, in that they have more in common with each other than, one suspects, they might have with many of their countrymen.
As a result, there is always the danger that, with all this talk of the globe, they might forget that local issues and national interests also need to be remembered. As this is a global event, it’s not surprising that national idiosyncrasies are brushed over, or at least reduced to light-hearted slagging about football results, but there is a potential to underestimate them. Nationalism, regionalism and localism are real ideas with real emotional connections.
As these Swiss villages have shown, what makes you different makes you strong. The key for the Davos forum is to respect local issues while, at the same time, promote globalisation. In a globalised world, old institutions seem oddly anachronistic.
For example, if you compare Davos’s forum to the UN’s annual General Assembly, there is a strong argument to suggest that Davos is more significant. The promoters of Davos would suggest that this is a good thing, because power has passed from politicians and governments to individuals and entrepreneurs.
The danger is that governments and politicians might not like this and, therefore, the tolerance to globalisation and the Davos ethos depends, not just on its idea, but on the economic feel-good factor.
This is why an economic downturn would be disastrous for globalisation. Already, the rhetoric of the US election has changed to reflect the short-term attractiveness of protectionism.
The present pro-globalisation, pro-Davos liberal movement is therefore dependent on the global/American economy continuing to grow. The model for countries in the Davos world-view is these successful Swiss cantons populated by proud people, with deep independent cultures who are confident enough to take the best the world has to offer, without feeling threatened.
We in Ireland could do worse than having a look here for a model of the future. When the average grocery shopper can trudge pass Bill Gates on the street and not even blink, you know you have achieved some happy, self-contented medium.