Summer 2001

Our Man at Davos 2001: The Sequel

The previous issue of Focus (Spring 2001) published part of an interview with Prof. Arnon Soffer of the Dept. of Geography, one of only four Israeli academics invited last January to the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland. That interview focused on the problem of water around the world, about which Professor Soffer made some telling remarks both at Davos 2001 and in the interview. In the continuation of the interview, which follows, Soffer talks about the environmental issues panel on which he served, “No Escaping the Connections,” and resumes his assessment of the gathering “committed to improving the state of the world.”

Focus: From the list of participants in the other discussion in which you took part, the session seems more academic oriented. Tell us about it.

Soffer: This was supposed to have employed a “Socratic dialogue format.” We sat at a U-shaped table, and the moderator had the choice of standing or walking around while facilitating the discussion. It didn’t work out that way, but no matter. The topic was a very pertinent one, the linking of social and economic problems when discussing environmental issues. But the meeting attracted many few people than did the one on water. Again, though, there were top people involved: There was one of the world’s top oceanography experts, Robert B. Gagosian, who is director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the U.S. Joseph Chamie, director of the UN’s Population Division, is a Lebanese who has lived in the United States for more than 25 years. He knew about me before we met at Davos, and we became good friends. Another panelists was Ed Mayo, executive director of the New Economics Foundation of the U.K. The moderator was Lou Marinoff, who is president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association. He speaks a little Hebrew and has visited Israel quite often, I learned.

 The point of our discussion is that in today’s world, we must deal in “connections”; in other words, interdisciplinarity. It is pass? to pit the social sciences, like demography and sociology, against economics or even against the natural sciences. In order to obtain a good understanding of the problems that are threatening humanity, we must integrate fields like demography and oceanography. Then we better deal with natural disasters like tidal waves and earthquakes that countries in South America and Asia have recently been experiencing.

 Let me stress that our own experience here the Middle East, in Gaza and the West Bank, shows us how demography and environment, and national security go hand in hand. It is impossible to separate out each of these elements; they are intertwined. As I see it, then, the main social problems with respect to the environment in this region are the social aspects of poverty, out-migration by the strong layers of society, or what is known as brain drain; and deterioration of the quality of life in a broad range of fields, ranging from crime to pollution to education. These issues have economic aspects, too, whether poverty or the inability to make an economic breakthrough or the deterioration of the environment in the form of water scarcity, desertification, or soil quality. When there is unrest along borders with other deteriorating countries, national security is endangered.

 There are obvious connections between any pair of these problems. People must be made aware of this matter of “connections”; that the integration of disciplines accompanies all of us. As though to back us up, one person in the audience who works in the field of biotechnology said that he finds he must combine this field, which itself is an integrated field, with economics and social issues to attack problems successfully.

The discussion, however, turned very philosophical, and no one could really develop any point in the six minutes each of us had to air a view. The meeting on this topic did not succeed like the one on water.

Focus: Let’s return to the event itself, not the substance of the discussions. All this talk about connections, were you able to meet with people from countries that do not have formal relations with Israel?

Soffer: I associated mainly with the Israeli contingent—there were others beside us four academics—and other Jewish figures. For instance, I met with a Jewish banker by name of Azulai, who is an economic adviser to King Hassan II. I had a talk with Eli Wiesel. A great many of the Jews who were there, by the way, showed much interest in Israel; they sought me out to hear what I had to say about the country. I had what I might describe as several low-profile meetings with the Jordanians and the Egyptians. At one of these, Amra Musah, Egypt’s past Foreign Minister and now the head of the Arab League, sat beside me. But Israel, as such, was not on the agenda.

Focus: You had your nametag, so he could see who you are.

Soffer: The nametag was just a minor identification plate. But if someone really wanted to know about you, let me tell you—the whole Davos event was suffused with technological sophistication. Everyone received a tiny computer when he registered, and in it was a disc containing the whole thick tome—every received a copy of this, too—describing in full each and every of the hundreds of participants. Now, if you can picture this: I am sitting at a table having lunch with the head of the Yale University Medical School and with one of the top New York journalists, and six others, each one at the top of his profession. This Yale professor’s wife saw my nametag, punched up my name, and in a second had downloaded everything about me. Oh, I see you work in the Israeli army, she says to me. Not to be outdone, my wife Mira enters this woman’s name into her, Mira’s, computer—everyone who came received one—and immediately knew all about this Yale couple. Because this was wireless machinery, Mira could have contacted our daughters in Jerusalem or Haifa. Or if I wanted to make an appointment with Thomas Friedman, the New York Times journalist who was sitting at my table, or with Bill Gates, I could send them an e-mail on the spot. It was all so amazing. All the technology there.

Focus: You hinted in the first interview that there was another reason for all this electronics.

Soffer: Yes. There were some 80 heads of state inside, and there were demonstrators outside. The site was heavily fortified electronically, like guarding a nuclear reactor. Little by little, though, the initial tension wore off as you felt yourself less and less under guard. Until two hours after the concluding event, however, it was all one big fortification. You couldn’t get in a hairpin that was unaccounted for. Each of us had a nametag, as I mentioned; this tag was computerized. The moment you approached some system and showed the tag, your picture immediately popped up. If you showed the tag to a computer, the computer became yours to use, just yours. Simply fantastic how all this was run.

 Focus: You had all these formal presentations, but was there time for socializing?

Soffer: There were all kinds of informal meetings. You also had states and companies hosting large cocktail parties. The governments of Canada and India invited me to their events, as did IBM to its reception. There were scores of these receptions, with invitations and messengers. You could see how deals were closed, how people who mattered met one another. This itself was an interesting story: there were scores of cocktail parties, with invitations and messengers; it was all so glittery. Yet the ironic thing is that while we were eating these huge, magnificent lunches, we were supposed to be dealing with world hunger. Saudi Arabia held a luncheon for 6,000 people: 2,500 from the business world, 1,000 administrators, 300 professors, and 1,000 security officers. All the delights of the Arabian nights. Then the next day, the management of the Davos enterprise laid on a similar bash.

Focus: What was the purpose of all this? What utility does it have? What benefits will emerge from this Davos forum?

Soffer: In the middle of a discussion of the AIDS tragedy in Africa, a man got up and wrote out a check to help the war on AIDS. The check was for $100 million! That is only a partial answer to the question. You had at Davos huge economic interests; for instance, the largest companies in the world financed the event, which was expensive indeed, perhaps $10-$15 million, according to a calculation I did. Everyone invited comes to this conference. All sorts of ideas are sold during this week. Business deals are made at formal and informal meetings among the participants. So, there is the pure business aspect of this event. There is also the idea side. Millions of people become aware of the ideas that the 300 professors and all the heads of major institutes bring with them to Davos. If the scholars managed to throw out an idea or two, and it is taken up by, say, the government of Senegal, the government of India, or whatever, then a team from one of the large organizations will immediately be sent that country. The ideas at this forum are a kind of “cast your bread upon the waters.” You raise ideas, you throw them out, and you bring them to the awareness of the world’s major economists.

Nevertheless, the question is a good one. In the wake of the disturbances in Seattle and those in Prague, there was great fear that these riots would recur at Davos, too. As a result, the organizers and participants were much more sensitive to every subject. And by the participants, I mean the largest companies in the world. They—these companies—understood that they could not cheat on the matter of low wages; they knew they had to help Africa. Therefore, I would say that if you look at the whole picture, at the forum in its entirely, just like a conference of scientists, where ideas are exchanged, where people are made aware of all sorts of subjects; and add to this the big business people on the order of Bill Gates and others who have accomplished what they have accomplished, and you get these giant companies that are prepared to go to small countries to conduct business deals—just as Hewlett Packard decided at the Davos forum to do, to go to Jordan—then this whole conference, Davos, has great utility. The effect snowballs.

Focus: How did this whole idea of Davos start? Who started it?

Soffer: It started 31 years ago. The Swiss initiated it. In recent years, it has gained importance especially among politicians, economists, and environmentalists, and there is much more attention toward the Third World countries as a result of this globalization.

Focus: Did you encounter any politics, especially in regard to our region?   For instance, any anti-Israel sentiment?

Soffer: In the Arab world, Davos has not received any importance. Except for Arafat, I did not see one Palestinian. There was no one from Syria or Iraq. No one from Iran. Only one or two were from Egypt. There was one person from Lebanon, whom I knew. The Arab world, with the notable exception of the Gulf countries, was absent. Kuwait was not represented, but the Emirates and Bahrain were. Qatar also, though not many. The Saudis, however, as I’ve indicated, were quite prominent.

 As for politics, except for Arafat’s talk, which was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, totally out of place, and two or three interjections from the audience, accusing Israel of creating a so-called digital divide that was preventing the Palestinians from developing their economy, there was no politics or anti-Israel manifestations at Davos. Not only that, but the politicians who were in attendance did not stay at the Central Palace, the main residence for participants, but were accommodated at various hotels. Most likely there was plenty of politicking at those venues. There was a certain atmosphere that prevailed at Davos, which attempted to be apolitical: the “spirit of Davos” they called it.


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