What is the message from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland? Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford’s new Blavatnik School of Government, reports from the thick of debate on global affairs.

Dispatches from DavosBy Ngaire Woods, Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government

Davos attracts some unusual groupies. This year the appearance of rapper Will.I.Am and ‘Happy’ Pharrell Williams caused a collective rush of pin-stripe suits urgently determined to get a selfie with a star. Personally, I managed to quench the urge to prove to my teenage children that Davos is cool — and got cool by tramping around in the snow instead.

Davos brings a couple of thousand people together who seek the chance to engage with one another — whether for three minutes or in an organised discussion. And at its best, Davos raises the bar — it makes people aware that they could do a little more good in the world, and that there are rewards to doing good. As Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford, I know that this bar-raising for everyone — business, journalists, governments and NGOs — is important for making government better around the world.

What did Davos say this year about the global economy? Davos was humming with a determined (possibly delusional) optimism about the global economy. The USA will grow, China will hold, oil prices will both stay cheaper (fostering growth) and rise enough not to cause a crisis for producers, and the EU is on track to do better. I like optimism. But I can’t bring myself to forget that at Davos last year we collectively managed to remain oblivious to the possibilities of an oil price crash, the emergence of the ‘Islamic State’ revolutionaries in the Middle East, and war in the Ukraine. It’s definitely not a crystal ball.

But it is a place to hear a wide range of views if you listen hard. In a private breakfast discussion chaired brilliantly by German Gref, head of Russian bank Sberbank, analysts debate Russia’s economic policy. I had heard Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev announce his new economic plan at the Gaidar Forum in Moscow the week before Davos, and it was a strikingly protectionist call to ensure that ‘Russian business wins’.

Dispatches from Davos

This is understandable in hard times, but unlikely to succeed. While politics and economic crisis are pressing Russia to look inwards, it urgently needs to reach out to the rest of the world for investment, for a workforce, and for resolving geopolitical pressures. Here at the Blavatnik School of Government we’re going to think harder about how we can help.

The Open Forum is a wonderful innovation. In a high-school hall outside the iron-ring security of the Davos meeting, the public (students, activists, Swiss townsfolk) joined me in debating whether democracy is at an end. You can watch the panel discussion in full at the end of this article.

It was humbling to hear the panellists. Ali Tarhouni was stripped of his Libyan citizenship and sentenced to death in the 1980s and has still kept fighting for democracy in Libya, where he is now president of the constitutional assembly in a very fractured transition. Vitali Klitschko, one of the longest-reigning heavyweight boxing champions of all time and a deeply thoughtful and determined mayor of Kiev, is struggling to improve governance in the midst of Ukraine’s conflict. José Ángel Gurría, head of the OECD, spoke passionately about the need for democracies to deal with inequality. Wang Hui, professor of intellectual history at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, reminded us of China’s concerns and history.

The public were split. One half were hugely optimistic about democracy — they were mainly Swiss. The rest had more questions.

Without doubt, my favourite quote of the whole week at Davos was Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper: ‘If you really want to persuade someone, listen harder.’ That for me is a great guide towards better government and global cooperation: listen harder to what people (including those you dislike or distrust) need, what they fear, and what they want. And listen equally hard to what has worked and is working, before presuming to impose a solution.

Professor Ngaire Woods is the inaugural Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government and Professor of Global Economic Governance. Images by Monika Flueckiger (top and previews) and Michael Buholzer (inset), via Flickr, under Creative Commons licence.


  • Watch the Open Forum debate on ‘The end of democracy?’


By RH Findlay

"While politics and economic crisis are pressing Russia to look inwards, it urgently needs to reach out to the rest of the world for investment, for a workforce, and for resolving geopolitical pressures. Here at the Blavatnik School of Government we’re going to think harder about how we can help."

May I humbly suggest that a certain country across the Atlantic be reminded that the Cold War ended back in around 1989, when that Reagan and Gorbachev agreed verbally that NATO would not expand whilst the Warsaw Pact would be dismantled. Whilst the Warsaw Pact has been dismantled, and whilst former countries once part of the USSR are now independent, NATO has been expanded, with great deliberation, to the very borders of Russia. The economics of Russia are not being helped by an embargo that is contrary to the spirit of the agreement between Reagan and Gorbachev and the current politicking that has led to the drop of the p[rice of oil. Cooperation, rather than antagonistic foreign policies, is what is required between the world's great powers. There are too many serious world problems facing us all for petty politics, more suited to the 19th century, to hold us all in thrall.

By Dr. Jumber Asatiani

Let me cordially congratuate Ngaire Woods, Dean of Oxford’s new Blavatnik School of Government for having one of the best panels at Davos!
Dr. Asatiani J.
Moscow State University
Professor of International Public Relations

By Dr. Jumber Asatiani

Very special thanks to Colorado’s Governor John Hickenlooper for enlightened comments!

By Nick Sharp

Thank you for that, Dean Woods.

So, Davos is no crystal ball, having failed last year to anticipate the oil price crash, the Ukraine war (let's call it for what it is), or the so-called Islamic (it is anything but) State (it isn't). Fair enough, but what of those issues which are already blindingly obvious?

Please share with us then what discussions happened this year about the two biggest physical issues facing humanity today: climate change and, even bigger, the mandatory achievement of total sustainability.

The former is a subset of the latter. Avoiding causing further climate change requires us to give up burning fossil fuels. Achieving total sustainability requires us to stop using UP (not stop using) ALL non-renewables. Sure, we should triage them, and address the most crucial first. We are all aware of the concept of peak oil, which we may already have passed, but coming up close behind is peak phosphate, on which much of our agriculture depends.

Forums such as Davos are presumably attended by many economists, to whom 'growth' is a mantra, with globalisation its essential driver. What then of a world where eventually all non-renewables must be regarded as assets to be cherished, and only recycled as a last resort (since re-use is more effective) but never never trashed.

Oil, the key driver of trade in goods, will be no more. Production and consumption, particularly of food, must be localised. Global trade in ideas can continue to flourish via The Internet, though as so many now realise, making money from intellectual property is very challenging. Regional and global trade in small goods might continue, given their low transport costs, but large heavy low value-per-kilo trade will become obsolete. And goods must be made so that they can eventually be dismantled entirely to recycle their components. Examine the innards of your mobile phone to see how easy that will be.

Power must become almost entirely reliant on solar, wind, and hydro, with some geothermal in appropriately blessed geographies.

NONE of the above really need a crystal ball to know that (a) they are going to happen and must be tackled and (b) that we are travelling, or rather accelerating, in almost the exactly opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the sea level rises, gradually at first, with gathering pace as the decades roll, and just might eventually swamp most of the world's great cities, since so many are coastal. Sure, if that does happen, it will take several centuries. But it will take us that long to reorganise to cope peacefully. That is, if we don't descend into chaos.

Davos rhymes with chaos. Will we see the next forum addressing these issues?

Nick Sharp (Wadham, 1966)

By Mark Whitwill

Hydro and wind energy are essentially renewable energies and should certainly have a part to play in reducing demand for non replaceable resources. But it is naive to regard photovoltaic energy as sustainable and eco-friendly. The solar cells based on current technology require rare earth minerals and after 20 years have to be replaced. The batteries that might be required to store the energy have to be replaced every 5 years. And with a higher CO2 footprint than hydro, wind or even nuclear, solar energy is not the white Knight that so many paint it to be.