Published January 25, 2014
The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting draws the world's top CEOs and the some of the planet's most powerful leaders to Davos. Other than economy, its forums focus on the international issues generating headlines.
And then there are several hundred, if not thousand, of other agendas and players slipping and sliding across town in the ice to try to tap those who want to learn, listen or invest.
Take the leader of the Young Entrepreneurs of Kazakhstan, who is a member of the Global Shapers, young people chosen by the World Economic Forum for their impressive contributions to their societies. At 23, Pavel Koktyshev is eager to create a solid future for himself and his country.
He is a businessman and a business "angel". Koktyshev tells me that young people in his resource rich country typically aspire to find jobs at oil companies or in government. Koktyshev claims some people actually pay serious cash to get government jobs because of the access to government budgets they bring. He wants to change the mentality of his nation, and help young people realize a wide variety of dreams. Kotyshev says Kazakhstan boasts a solid education system, one positive holdover from the Soviet system.
I asked if the movie "Borat", which poked fun at his country, had set things back for Kazakhstan. He said, on the contrary, it provided tremendous publicity. In order to not waste time, he said, whenever he gives a talk, he takes the initiative to bring up the movie.
"I know people will ask about "Borat," or even if they don't ask, they are thinking about it. So I figure it's best to bring it up first," he said.
Koktyshev is busy raising money to help small businesses get up and running. His group also provides logistical help to start-ups, and he is working with the government to help streamline certain procedures. He does worry about corruption, especially down the line. Small companies are generally safe in Kazakhstan, he said, but he fears that when they grow into something substantial, the government may try to claim a piece of the action.
Then you have people building cities in the desert. Fahd Al Rasheed is the CEO of King Abdullah Economic City on the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, a privately funded city being built entirely from scratch, and listed on the Saudi Stock Exchange. It boasts the Kingdom's first private port, which just went operational a few days ago. "We want to be part of the global dialogue on cities, because the 21st century is the urban century," Al Rasheed said. "We have 180,000 people moving into cities everyday," he said.
King Abdullah Economic City, or KAEC, will be home to 2 million people when it's completed. Al Rasheed, who is a Stanford University MBA, says he wants KAEC to be a global logistics hub, offering low taxes, "plug and play" service, and generous loans for foreign investors from the Saudi government. Candy manufacturer Mars, which has a big Saudi market, has a new facility there. I asked Al Rasheed if the construction of a modern city, which is still many years away from total completion, but which is already functioning and inhabited, will be an engine for societal change in Saudi.
He said change is already gripping the Kingdom. "It's a very exciting time of change. You can feel it on the ground. It might not look it from the outside, but there is definitely a lot of movement," he said.
In the same conference center, William Browder of Hermitage Capital Management lobbies for justice for his late lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who died in a Russian prison in 2009. Browder maintains Magnitsky was tortured and killed in prison. The Russian government has never admitted to this. Magnitsky had uncovered a scheme by which people working for or connected to the Russian bureaucracy had stolen $235 million owed to Hermitage Capital as part of a tax rebate.
The Russians accuse Browder of tax evasion and fraud and even tried and convicted him and Magnitsky. Browder, for his part, managed to get the Sergei Magnitsky Act passed in the United States just over a year ago. It puts a visa ban and asset freeze on 16 individuals implicated in Magnitsky's arrest, torture and death.
"In December, 2012, the Magnitsky Act was passed which was unexpected given how partisan Congress is on almost everything else. This is the one thing that they could agree on," Browder said.
Russia's reaction to the passage of the Magnitsky Act was to ban all American adoptions of Russian children. Browder said banning of adoptions of kids, some of whom have special needs, was unfair. "Bans of adoptions is like taking babies-sick, disabled babies - and using them as human shields," he said.
As there is always a large Russian contingent at Davos, Browder tries to engage them on this topic. This usually is unsuccessful, but he claims he manages to scare some businessmen off from doing business with Russia. He is lobbying for passage of the Magnitsky Act in Europe.
January brings a bunch of anniversaries, like the much discussed commencement of the Arab Spring, and the devastating earthquake in Haiti, which happened four years ago this month. The earthquake killed 220,000, and left 1.5 million homeless. The majority have been re-housed, but some remain without homes. Of the aid given to Haiti, much has been inefficiently used, but the government puts that down to the money going to NGO's without government coordination, which led to some of the problems.
Haiti's Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe came to Davos to try to drive home the point that Haiti is open for business. He claims Haiti is the safest tourist destination in the Caribbean, and that growth in that region is second, at 4.3 percent, which he attributes to the severely discounted oil Venezuela has been selling Haiti on the provision it invest the difference in critical infrastructure.
Lamothe said that has been the most instrumental program in getting Haiti back on its feet. Tom's shoes has invested in Haiti, as well as Heineken, and Lamothe says he is looking for investment in what he calls the next great tourist destination.
He says further investment in Haiti will allow us to "change the branding of Haiti to a place to make business from a place of eternal development assistance."
Lamothe said he was not surprised when he read that Haitians are in the top five, for prosperity of an immigrant group in the United States.
"When given an opportunity, we can excel at it, but we just need an opportunity. That's what we're doing now-seeking opportunity for the country's long term development., " Lamothe said.