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01/28/2014

Besides the cocktail parties, is the Davos World Economic Forum still relevant?

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Brian Gallagher, United Way worldwide CEO. (The Guardian)

A who's who of world leaders just got finished meeting in Davos.

As usual, the annual meeting attracts an impressive array of politicians -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, President of the Republic of Iran Hassan Rouhani -- and key players in the management of the global economy such as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

Every year these folks spend four days meeting and greeting the heads of the worlds largest corporations and business leaders from Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo to Bill Gates to Unilever's Paul Polman.

Even Pope Francis sent a message to those gathered in the Swiss resort town, "I ask you to ensure that humanity is served by wealth and not ruled by it."

Also in attendance was Brian Gallagher, the CEO and president of the United Way worldwide. The United Way raised $5.4 billion worldwide last year. There are 1,800 local United Way's in 41 countries. Consequently, the United Way in Toronto is one of the single largest United Way's in the world in terms of revenue.

So how relevant is Davos to the head of one of North America's biggest philanthropic organizations?

"It is like a lot of things," said Gallagher, back in Washington D.C. after the meeting. "It is what you make of it. You could and  just go and essentially just listen to people and take a week to have a pretty passive experience, or, a social one, I guess. But I don’t take it forgranted. It is really business leaders and government leaders, not many NGOs like myself. I focus on relationships. There are lots of people I don’t know."

Gallagher says Davos opens doors to those he wouldn't normally get to meet. This was his sixth forum.

"It is important for non-profits to do as much as we can to (remind) business and government leaders that civil society matters. And as you talk of the global economy, you need citizens at the centre of it," Gallagher said.

A big focus this year was on income inequality. That was refreshing, he said.

"Income inequality is close to my heart. Some governments talk about it but it wasn’t until this year that businesses started to talk about it. And no matter what anyone says, until business talks about it, it won’t (matter.)"

While that was a step forward, Gallagher said he had hoped to see more concrete thoughts and strategic plans on how to address it.

"But at least it made it into the narrative ... I still think business and government leaders see the potential of narrowing the income gap as a matter of public policy or social solutions and not one of economic behaviour or change. That is what we didn’t hear enough about."

Businesses don't "yet understand" how much their influence matters in closing the income gap such as placing an emphasis on community value instead of shareholder value and the importance of emphasizing more long-term investments and less on what the quarterly earnings are.

Unilever's CEO Paul Polman told Davos his corporation plans on shifting to 6 month, not quarterly reporting, said Gallagher.

He applauded this move. Reporting of longer term returns is the only way to build income inequality into a company's economic strategy. It's a positive step, Gallagher added.

Tanya Talaga is the Star's global economics reporter. Follow her on Twitter @tanyatalaga

 

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