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The common wisdom factory

May 07 2017 06:10
Dewald van Rensburg
President Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum o

President Jacob Zuma at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town. (Matthew le Cordeur)

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You get used to it very quickly – the typical World Economic Forum (WEF) glance.

With 1 000 people trooping through Inkosi Albert Luthuli International Convention Centre this week, it becomes habitual to covertly glance at the name tags everyone has to wear.

Not all 1 000 attendees are VIPs and for those of us mere mortals, the point of being here is to bump into these important people.

The average cigarette break involves passing three or four Cabinet members in the hallways, not to mention heads of other states, CEOs and the numerous handlers of these officials.

But what does the WEF do? Its meetings are famous, known for being the world’s greatest networking events.

For public figures, attending such a prestigious event is a way to address that nebulous group, the investor community, and lunch with them afterwards.

In between these meetings, however, the WEF is at heart a think-tank for the corporate world.

A cynic would say its stated mission of “improving the state of the world” boils down to framing all societal problems as issues that its corporate members can, and will, solve.

The astonishing influence of the WEF on global economic rhetoric extends to the ANC.

The governing party’s discussion document on communications for its policy conference in June is organised entirely around the fourth industrial revolution – a concept popularised mainly by WEF founder Klaus Schwab at the forum’s 2016 annual meeting.

Schwab and the WEF are also responsible for the ubiquitous notion of “social entrepreneurship”.

Schwab himself is the reason everyone talks about corporations’ “stakeholders”, which is shorthand for everyone other than the shareholders.

After new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba unwisely used the vague new catch-all phrase, “radical economic transformation”, in his first public appearance on the job, he quickly fell back on another one, “inclusive growth”, telling everyone it meant the same thing.

The WEF is also mainly responsible for the latter phrase becoming part of the global vocabulary.

French economist Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the 21st Century, brought inequality back to the fore in 2015, prompting the WEF to create an “inclusive growth index” in response.

The aim was to channel attention to “less vaguely aspirational” plans than, for instance, higher taxes.

Some of the bigwigs at this year’s WEF are deeply invested in the related idea of “financial inclusion”.

It is an offshoot of inclusive growth, where the lines between marketing services and a development goal get very blurry.

A member of one large consultancy’s delegation to WEF complained about the muddy conceptual waters.

“You have people using the term radical economic transformation, and now changing the rhetoric to inclusive growth to make it more sellable. Our clients do not know what is meant by that.

“By inclusive growth, do you mean maintaining a disciplined fiscal policy and finding a gradual way to include more people who are outside the system?

"Or, do you mean a more radical transfer of funds that happens so fast, there will be severe consequences? We would not use the term, inclusive growth. It is too vague to be used in the business environment.”

Global advocacy group Oxfam International has become akin to the official opposition at the WEF.

Since 2015, the group’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, has co-chaired WEF meetings and has been given sessions to present Oxfam’s annual reports.

This week’s Oxfam contribution took polite aim at inclusive growth and other WEF concepts.

In true WEF fashion, Oxfam also announced that it was creating what appeared to be a competing index to the forum’s own inclusive growth measure.

The more on-the-nose Commitment to Reducing Inequality Index will score countries on tax collection, social spending and labour rights.

A preview of this upcoming project says South Africa scores well on this index.

The Oxfam report calls for African countries to resist the privatisation of healthcare and education. It supports “social enterprises”, but points out that before there were social enterprises, there were cooperatives.

It claims that 1 billion people belong to some form of cooperative globally and have been creating innovative business models for two centuries.

The WEF-sponsored agriculture initiative, Grow Africa, needs to be revised to be more, well, inclusive, says Oxfam.

Much of its report calls for investment to be driven into small-scale agriculture on the continent – given that this is what earns the majority of African workers their daily bread.

The WEF debate on inclusive growth is welcome as it “recognises that ensuring that the benefits of growth are felt by the poorest people requires government intervention and regulation”, adds the report.

“But the drive to deliver inclusive or even pro-poor growth can still lead to the absolute gap between rich and poor widening significantly,” it warns.

Oxfam then chips in with its own rival concept: a “human economy”, where less inequality and poverty is the primary goal, not the hoped-for by-product.


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