Davos 2015: Where the world’s billionaires meet the poorest

By Joy Portella, Minerva Strategies –

This year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos offered up much of its standard fare: private jets, top-tier corporate and political leaders, celebrities, heady speeches, and bold proclamations.

But this year’s gathering had an undercurrent of anxiety. It wasn’t a 2009-style panic about global financial meltdown; the anxiety was that the markets are working but only for privileged few. These fears were brought to a head not by the leader of a multinational corporation or a prime minister or a president, but by Davos’ rarest species: the NGO.

There are a number of nonprofit organizations that go to Davos, a few dozen of them under a special civil society designation. They work on a range of issues including human rights, women’s empowerment, and environmental protection. They are at Davos to network, seek out corporate partners, attempt to influence policy, and even attend a few of the gathering’s famous cocktail parties. But most important, they are the annual meeting’s moral conscience; civil society keeps the poor, the vulnerable, and the voiceless on the agenda of the world’s most powerful and wealthy people.

One of these groups is Oxfam, the international poverty-fighting organization that is as well known for its smart advocacy campaigns as its work to provide aid in 90+ countries around the world. Oxfam does not pull punches in talking to corporations, politicians, and other wielders of power, and their boldness was in full display in the Working for the Few report, which was released immediately before Davos.

The report revealed alarming statistics about the growing inequality of the world’s wealth. A miniscule group – 85 of the richest people – control as much as the poorest half of the world’s population, that’s 3.5 billion people put together.

The reality that some people make more money than others is a fact of life reflecting a combination of factors like smarts, training, work ethic, and most of all, luck about where you’re born and what circumstances you’re born into. But the current level of income disparity is ridiculous, immoral, and dangerous. How stable can our world be if the richest one percent hold 65 times as much wealth as the poorest 50 percent of people combined? How can markets truly flourish if most of the world sees no benefit from them?

Oxfam, which has some of the best communication people in the business, leveraged the report to the fullest extent possible. More than 3,000 media outlets – ranging from The Guardian to The Onion – covered the story, and the report’s big headline was tweeted more than 18,000 times – well more than the official Davos hashtags. Oxfam America’s site crashed following the report’s release and highlighting on Reddit because traffic was so intense.

And Oxfam stuck it to the Davos attendees, calling on them to take a personal pledge to tackle income inequality by not dodging taxes or currying political favors, and supporting minimum wages floors and progressive taxation. Perhaps more important, all of the media buzz created an embarrassing backdrop for Davos where the issue of income inequality could not be ignored. WEF acknowledges the issue; its Global Risks report identifies income inequality as a major threat to the global community and its website homepage prominently features an article on the subject by the head of Oxfam (who attended Davos).

Of course, the proof is in the pudding on income disparity and all other challenges discussed at Davos. Will global leaders keep this issue high on their agendas once they return home? For many countries – including the U.S. – the consequences of this enormous disparity seem too big to ignore: entrenched poverty, social instability, political marginalization, and ultimately, an economy that is so precariously skewed to the wealthy that it does not work. Leaders will either listen or be forced to listen. Let’s hope it’s the former.