Tag archives for global

Davos: Back to the Future

Parag Kanna has a fascinating thesis on what the Davos conference is. Davos, for the unfamiliar, “where each January the planet’s most influential heads of state, CEOs, mayors, religious leaders, NGO heads, university presidents, celebrities and artists flock for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), an event that over the past four decades has established itself as what “60 Minutes” last year dubbed “the most important meeting on Earth.”” But more than a meeting, Davos represents a new paradigm for diplomacy, taking place outside of the conventional structure of Nation-States dating back to the treaty of Westphalia. And it’s not just a new paradigm, it’s a better one.

Compared to the modern inter-state diplomatic system, Davos represents anti-diplomacy—and yet it actually reflects the true parameters of global diplomacy today better than the United Nations. The reason is that in our ever more complex diplomatic eco-system, relations among governments represent only one slice of the total picture. Beyond the traditional “public-public” relations of embassies and multilateraism, there are also the “public-private” partnerships sprouting across sectors and issues. Qatar’s natural gas fortunes hinge on its arrangement with Exxon, India’s ability to attract foreign investment is contingent on support from the business magnates who make up the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), and the alliance of the Gates Foundation, pharmaceutical company Merck, and the government of Botswana saved the country’s population from being wiped out by AIDS, to name just a few of the now literally countless such arrangements flourishing today. The third and often neglected dimension of the new diplomacy is “private-private” interactions which circumvent the state altogether. Think of the Environmental Defense Fund dealing directly with Wal-Mart to cut the company’s overall emissions by 20 million metric tons and install solar panels at 30 new locations. The diplomats at Cancun could only dream of such concrete measures.

All three of these combinations of negotiating partners thrive at Davos and in all WEF activities, which range from mini-Davos-style regional conferences to year-round multi-stakeholder initiatives in public health, climate change, anti-corruption and other areas. The WEF does what no U.N. agency would ever do: allow “coalitions of the willing” to organically “grow and go”—incubating them but also quickly spinning them off into self-sustaining entities; but importantly also letting projects die that fail to attain sufficient support from participants. In this sense the WEF is both a space for convening but also a driver of new agendas.

Absolutely fascinating, the idea that an alliance of the super-wealthy, and professional activists could make a difference on the world more effectively than traditional governments. The end of the nation-state is something that we’ve seen before, along with the rise of a new global elite, but Ranna puts an interesting spin on it, hearkening back to the Middle Ages when a variety of actors could influence global diplomacy, not just people bearing the seals of powerful nations. This is more than anarchy or oligarchy, this is the return of an ancient and resilient system of governance. We can only hope that they have some way of implementing wise decisions, and not just imposing choices for personal benefit from the top down.

John Robb is far less sanguine, and in typically vituperative fashion,

“[Davos] is a collection of elites generated by the antiquated, hierarchical systems of the 20th Century — akin to a collection of corrupted inebriated noblemen from depleted, inbred bloodlines discussing the future of war, peace, and prosperity during the post fox-hunt feast.”

Well, yes, and it’s certainly not democratic nor accountable. But if Davos is where the action really is, then we need to be paying attention. And this new ruling class is a minimum, more egalitarian and less concerned with holding power forever than the ones that have come before.

Kanna does make one critical point, and I’ll leave it in his words:

Global governance is not a thing, not a collection of formal institutions, not even a set of treaties. It is a process involving a far wider range of actors than have ever been party to global negotiations before. The sooner we look for new meta-scripts for regulating transnational activities and harnessing global resources to tackle local problems the better. Davos continues to be a good place to start.

Amen. Global governance starts with all of us.

Plutocracy Now

“As F. Scott Fitzgerald famously noted, different from you and me. What is more relevant to our times, though, is that the rich of today are also different from the rich of yesterday. Our light-speed, globally connected economy has led to the rise of a new super-elite that consists, to a notable degree, of first- and second-generation wealth. Its members are hardworking, highly educated, jet-setting meritocrats who feel they are the deserving winners of a tough, worldwide economic competition—and many of them, as a result, have an ambivalent attitude toward those of us who didn’t succeed so spectacularly. Perhaps most noteworthy, they are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home. Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.”

Read the rest at the Atlantic.

Since World War 2, the world has become immensely more wealthy, but that wealth has not been evenly distributed. In the first world, top industrialists and financiers have benefited the most, while in the third world, those with access to modern communication technology have far outpaced their countrymen. Even in the depths of the economic crises, these new rich have continued to become richer, even as others have stagnated or fallen behind. With money comes power, but the new plutocracy does not care about nations or class or origins. What they value are ideas and innovation, and some of them care deeply about social issues. Bill Gates, George Soros, and Warren Buffett, to give some examples, have donated billions of dollars to cure diseases, extend freedom, and improve access to the technologies that are a prerequisite for becoming a member of this new class. This combination of wealth and activism is necessary for us to Prevail in the future. The alternative is unimaginably worse.

The Profits of Nonprofits

“Technology is way advanced, and it’s the business models that are lagging way behind, limiting what social entrepreneurs are able to accomplish,” says Victoria Hale, founder of two nonprofit pharmaceutical companies.

The Scientist has an exciting new article on new model for the pharmaceutical industry, blending the social mission of non-profits with the efficient business practices of big corporations. The perennial problem of big pharma and global health is that developing new treatments is expensive, and many of the most horrible disease are suffered by small numbers of people in the third world. Even though these diseases exact a terrible human toll, it isn’t financially viable to search for cures.

Enter non-profit pharmaceutical companies, which target these diseases, like malaria, dysentery, or the deadly visceral leishmaniasis:

Since its inception, [Institute for OneWorld Health] has received more than $200 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as funds from other philanthropic donors. The socially conscious company has even tugged at the heartstrings of several for-profit pharmaceutical companies, who have agreed to make and distribute drugs developed by iOWH on a no profit, no loss basis. With that backing, the company has already brought to market a drug to treat visceral leishmaniasis—the world’s second-largest parasitic killer after malaria—and developed a pipeline of others designed for scourges of the developing world: malaria, diarrheal diseases, and parasitic worm infections.
iOWH is unusual, but it is not alone. With philanthropists funneling billions of dollars into biomedical research and traditional drug discovery efforts producing fewer and fewer therapies, the line between for-profit and nonprofit life science companies is beginning to blur as both sides of the divide look for new options. More and more for-profit enterprises are experimenting with nonprofit models, while nonprofit organizations look to incorporate for-profit business practices to stay afloat.
“At one time, people in the nonprofit world had a disdain for business, and business people thought nonprofits were without discipline,” says Jack Faris, CEO of the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute, a nonprofit research center in Seattle, Washington. “People have matured a substantial amount beyond that…There’s much more appreciation of the role that each plays and a readiness to work together.”

The typical pattern is a partnership, where non-profits use advanced scientific knowledge to find cures, and local partners get the drugs into the hands of those who need them:

iOWH, however, did not have funds for manufacturing facilities to make and distribute the product. So to get the drug to those who needed it, iOWH partnered with a for-profit company in India, Gland Pharmaceuticals, which has agreed to take on those roles for no profit, no loss. With Gland’s help, paromomycin is now available in India and costs $10-15 for the whole 21-injection course of therapy. “It’s a family-run company, and they really care a lot about diseases of the poor,” says Chin. “They’ve been fantastic.”

iOWH, however, did not have funds for manufacturing facilities to make and distribute the product. So to get the drug to those who needed it, iOWH partnered with a for-profit company in India, Gland Pharmaceuticals, which has agreed to take on those roles for no profit, no loss. With Gland’s help, paromomycin is now available in India and costs $10-15 for the whole 21-injection course of therapy. “It’s a family-run company, and they really care a lot about diseases of the poor,” says Chin. “They’ve been fantastic.”

These hybrid models might offer one solution to the crisis of global health, distributing socially beneficial knowledge to help everybody, not just those who can afford it.

Year of the Leak

2010 is the year of the leak. From the Afghanistan and Iraq war diaries, to Cablegate, and the upcoming revelations about Bank of America, the website Wikileaks has driven the media debate, challenged American foreign policy, and proposed a new way to control governments and corporations. The hyperbole surrounding Wikileaks has been tremendous. Senators have demand the head of Julian Assange on the Senate floor, while Assange has compared himself to Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The allegations of rape, treason, and espionage make for a dramatic tale, but there are important questions to be asked. Is the absolute transparency of Wikileaks truly good for democratic governance? What balance of openness and privacy should we strive for in society? And what comes after Wikileaks?

Public transparency is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Citizens must know what the government does in their name, must know that public figures are capable and honest, so that if they are not they can be replaced. The traditional organ of transparency are the press. In the worlds of Thomas Jefferson, “Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” The press exists to monitor politicians, and inform the public, but it is also dependent on public officials for leads and quotes, and beholden to commercial advertising. The entertaining, familiar press is a fixture, but is less credible than ever before. There is a widespread sense among Americans that the news is not telling them the truth, that stories are slanted and incomplete.

Into this gap steps Wikileaks, with a radically different view of how information and the public should work. Wikileaks demands that all information be publicly accessible, that governments and corporations should be completely transparent, and that those who do not abide by these rules will be punished. But despite similar techniques, do not confused Wikileaks with the press; Wikileaks is a political organization with revolutionary fundamentally antithetical to the structure of contemporary society.

Julian Assange is deep, if unconventional political theorist, and at the heart of Wikileaks is his idea of the authoritarian conspiracy. Assange believes that the world is ruled by conspiracies, not in the “9-11 was an inside job, aliens exist, the Queen of England is a reptoid” way, but in a much more formal, mathematical idea that there are networks of power and influence which exert a great deal of control on events, to the detriment of people in general. This authoritarian conspiracies are the real structure of government, senior civil servants, politicians, industrialists and tycoons, and they collaborate to run the world system.

Assange wants to kill this conspiracy, and Wikileaks is his tools. Conspiracies and networks are hard to eliminate, there is no central commander to decapitate, new members rise up from the ranks. The continued battle against Al Queda shows how difficult it is to destroy a conspiracy. Instead of waging war on the powerful, Assange has targeted its infrastructure, the network of trust that allows the global authoritarian conspiracy to coordinate its actions. There is no specific information available to Wikileaks, rather its existence and ability to expose and embarrass authoritarian conspiracies forces them to spend time and energy on internal security, reduces the ability of conspirators to trust one another, and ultimately drives the conspiracy into paralysis. An authoritarian conspiracy that cannot communicate, cannot think, cannot act, and will ultimately be destroyed.

Is the American government an authoritarian conspiracy, as Assange describes them? From certain viewpoints, yes. The American government often acts in a secret, and has lied, deceived, and killed in the name of small, wealthy interests before. It represents only 307 million of the nearly 7 billion people on this planet. But on the other hand, domestic funding is publicly accountable, and the U.S. often acts the ‘global policeman’ to stop rogue states and weapons of mass destruction.

As Jaron Lanier lays out in an excellent essay, the internet is at its basis binary, on or off, totally open or completely closed. This feature is built into the core of the hardware that runs the internet, and is how Wikileaks is so successful. A poorly secured government network (SIPRNet) was penetrated by one of the three million users who had access. Once the alleged leaker, Private Manning, had passed the cables to Wikileaks, they were everywhere, and impossible to put back in the bag.

Data on the internet exists in only one of these two states, cursory openness or total secrecy, but real life is full of shades of gray. We tell things to our family we would not tell to our friends, which we would not tell to colleagues, which we would not tell a stranger on the bus and so on. Ultimately, without the privacy of out thoughts, the self as we know it would not exist. What Lanier fears is that Wikileaks, in seeking absolutely transparency, will instead create the opposite, a completely militarized state where information is tightly controlled. For fear of losing the crown gems of military secrets, the government might lock everything up.

For Bruce Sterling, Wikileaks and its founder are the physical and political embodiment of the Internet, of a hacker culture that delights in the coolness of information and access without much worry for the real consequences. There is a hacker belief in the power of Truth, and the equation of Truth with a lot of information. But for ordinary people, not computer nerds or hackers, information is blinding light, bleach that destroys privacy and personality. The opposite side of transparency in democracy is discretion, the ability of the public servants to speak only so much of the truth, because the whole truth will lead to chaos, not freedom.

That is the essence of what Wikileaks has done to American diplomacy in the wake of Cablegate. I doubt that there is much surprise in professional diplomatic circles over the contents of the tables. The corruption and lasciviousness of world leaders makes for fun gossip for the chattering classes, but the most likely result is that foreigners will be leery of sharing their candid assessments with American diplomats, and diplomats will be worried about sending those assessments on. Mutual griping, gossiping, and speculating is required to build informal communities of trust (or authoritarian conspiracies), and cannot be sustained when diplomats must examine every word for its public significance, not just the joint statements made at the end of prolonged negotiations. The sphere for public thought and action has drawn smaller.

I keep faith in the hacker credo that information is power, that information wants to be free, and that information can set us free. But Wikileaks is only the first step; information must be used by people to impact the world. Wikileaks itself has become more canny about this in its four year history, strategically providing the most provocative documents to the mainstream media first, but a brief flurry of indignation over the state of the world is not a solution. Even with their corruption exposed, most of the people featured in the Wikileaks cables are effectively beyond the reach of the law. Wikileaks espouses one way of dealing with them, based on shame, paranoia, and ever escalating cyber-attacks. But shame is only relevant in the eye of an increasingly jaded and distracted public. Paranoia effects the institutions we rely on as much as it effects malefactors, and cyber-attacks are a dead-end arms race that will only make computers and networks less useful.

Rather than the antagonize the world, as Wikileaks and those in government charged with responding to it have done, we should use this chance to have a conversation, not a trial. The US government should publicly make the case why its actions in exposed by Wikileaks have been for the good of the nation, and the world. And if your arguments cannot withstand public scrutiny, then it is time to find new policies, and new goals. What we need is not transparency, but candor.