January 27, 2008

Learning from the Davos locals

Posted in International Economy · 6 comments ·

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.

  1. Philip

    As paddies, it seems we never appreciated what we have here. As we whinged, it became a self fulfilling prophecy and we now have rubbish services and a complete lack of pride in who and what we are. It looked that we were indeed lost. A good downturn might be the medicine we need to wake us up. At least, there is nowhere else to run economically for now. Our geographical uniqueness may facilite the Davos model. And you can’t uneducate the populace as it stands at present. The potential is there. Bring of the Bears!!

  2. Philip

    As paddies, it seems we never appreciated what we have here. As we whinged, it became a self fulfilling prophecy and we now have rubbish services and a complete lack of pride in who and what we are. It looked that we were indeed lost. A good downturn might be the medicine we need to wake us up. At least, there is nowhere else to run economically for now. Our geographical uniqueness may facilite the Davos model. And you can’t uneducate the populace as it stands at present. The potential is there. Bring on the Bears!!

  3. Deco

    Actually the Swiss prove several things that are beyond the comprehension of your average Irish civil servant. First, that you can have a system that works, as every system should in a systematic manner, without needing loads of consultants’ reports !! Second, that it pays to be diligent, precise and careful. Third, that people who quietly go about their business often get far more done, than a bunch of loud mouthed fools behving like drunken sailors. Fourth, that community spirit can make life better. Fifth that it pays to save, and to live in moderation, especially now that we Irish are about to wake up with a debt hangover from a decade of binge spending on short term consumables.
    All these concepts are ‘foreign’ to the Irish public sector. A clear reason, why our public sector should not go to Davos-they would not learn anything !!!

  4. FreedomFighter

    Regarding the last comment. Irish civil servants would only go to Davos, if it was a drunken party. Like much of the Irish population, for who it seems that foreign travel, is all about showing foreigners that the Irish are very arrogant about the amount of alcohol the Irish drink. (the locals always have a different opinion of this, but we always convince ourselves otherwise….after all we are Irish, and we are never wrong about our alcohol stained mentality). If America is addicted to Oil, then Ireland must surely be addicted to alcohol, only our leaders will never admit it !!

  5. AndrewGMooney

    I thought I’d commented on this, but obviously I forgot to press ‘post comment’! Or David decided it was too ‘out there’ to allow. W.T.F! You need to get out more….

    The ‘future’ is unimaginably more compex than the past. As a ‘thought experiment’ :
    I’m back sitting with my Dad and his Irish Brummie mates explaining why car production is an extravagant irrelevance…You can imagine the reaction in 1992!

    I’ve long envisaged a retro-nouveau past-future-tableaux of sustainable local Energy (Eire…um….carbon-capture peat burning technologies?) and Cutlure (Eire: #1 Asset) without becoming absolute slaves to the Uniformed Whores of International Capital.

    If you can’t milk the latest international ‘cash-cow’ industrial/financial scam: Then milk the fu-kin cow in the field behind the house! Mind yourselves with the goats though, they could get the wrong idea if you start fiddling and don’t have your wits about you….

    It’s kind of sad to think of those roads in Ballyragget in the 60′s and 70′s where everyone was waiting for freedom from ‘The Telegram’ ….

    I drive through Kilkenny now and…..it’s very different….he said…cautiously……when i was a nipper I used to wander the fields by the Oveg and the Nore and think:

    Imagine living here! Not just for summer! But for real. Thank God I woke up and discovered Godless Birmingham.

    David’s article seems to be suggesting the possibility of ‘parallel economies’. One routed in ‘tangible’ local economic activities related to obvious commodities such as, erm….goats, milk, chocolate…

    The other is the more ‘intangible’: Whiteboard/Blackberry ‘Can-do-what-exactly?’ lunch-time shag in the back of the Audi-4WD’s spouting can-do b/s buzzwords.

    Do I win a prize for that gibberish sentence? ‘coldblow’? step up to tha’plate!
    Come on DMcW! If MOTD can have goal of the month, you can surely have ‘arrant nonsense/jargon of the month’ award? Worth a try…..

    I was talking to my one and only Icelandic friend who was dissing us prissy Brits. Apparently, in Iceland you kill the fish/puffin/goat, bury it in the ground, piss on it as a group-bonding lads-exercise, deep-freeze for an Arctic winter, then slice and dice it as an expensive starter. None of this namby-pamby soda-bread with cockles a la coq au vin or whatever the latest incendiary Bray Brasserie atrocity is….I would mention Darina, but: She’s in my prayers.

    Sorry! have i crossed the line here? I’ll get me coat….C U all in Cheltenham…or not.
    Just remember: You’re here to be fleeced. Just like DMcW and Condo in Davos: That’ll be £4.75 for a pint of Guiness, credulous young Paddy…..Enjoy!

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