Davos conference deserves JPM's attention

30Jan 2016
Our Reporter
The Guardian
Davos conference deserves JPM's attention

A minimum of controversy was lately audible in international media outlets that organisers of the World Economic Forum at the Swiss resort of Davos were sort of disappointed, to put it mildly, that South African President Jacob Zuma opted not to turn up for a panel slot in which he was expected to speak.

President John Magufuli

Dispute raged as to what moment the decision was made back in Pretoria, to determine if it was a matter of being occupied by state business, or a simple snub. Officials were insisting on hectic schedule but activists thought otherwise,

The controversy is of some significance in Dar es Salaam and perhaps beyond as newly inaugurated President John Magufuli definitely had no intention whatsoever of attending the galactic interpersonal gathering, where he would collect ideas on governance and investments from all over the world. What this means is that compared to the costs of attending, he would better put that money to some public facility, and avoid skiing to the Davos talking shop. In financial terms it makes sense, but scarcely in managerial capacity building.

That's where the problem is, to be able to measure, if need be, how far leaders attending Davos and such other gatherings become better decision makers by that experience or exposure, and strictly the evidence is shallow, close to nil.

Former president Jakaya Kikwete, one and half years into his presidency, and having attended countless such meetings as foreign minister already, faced a quiz from a French business journalist and analyst as to why Tanzania was poor and issued a remarkable answer: I don't know. What was he doing, thus?

Perhaps it can be asked if by the time he left office the president had learned something about poverty and changed course at some point to reflect some new intuitions arising from such attendances. To be sure such moments were not missing, if only one picks up the 2009 cotton industry bailout plan (but it had some breathtaking demerits) and follow-up Kilimo Kwanza drive, or the 2010 SAGCOT initiative that remained a dead letter. Then there was BRN.

What unifies those initiatives with the JK presidency from an analytical point of view is that they did not change the course of that presidency policy-wise, but put across a number of distinctive ideas which to an extent made some sort of difference. Even if the change merely galvanised certain spheres of administrative action that would otherwise remain dormant it was a good idea but not the sort of shift that would come under the 'change' rubric. Precisely in that sense Davos and such other gatherings are faulty; they change nothing.

Yet such an objection would appear pointless from a managerial point of view and even strictly, in terms of economics, since stellar interpersonal exchange with some of the brightest analysts and decision makers in the world can't leave an informed and sharp individual without a new idea. Frankly that can only be termed as tragic, as it is like a person who attends a day-long prayer conference without any renewal or enhancement in relation to penitence or charity, changing some aspect of attitude. He may not altogether change but stands a good change of enhancement of character, reducing obvious errors.

Just as it can properly be debated whether this happens in daily life or it is bread and butter questions, including attraction to specific persons whom one wishes to please that alters character or it is formal gatherings, similar issues come up with conferences. Just as in ordinary conversation we spend more of our time airing our views than actually taking stock of what others say, and in any case we seek to find a way out of the criticism rather than imbibe it, lose our way in so doing, so let it be with Davos. We all come back as Tanzanians.

Properly stated, conferences enhance our capacity to enshrine experiences of others in what we do as well as project in a more assured manner what we are doing, and changes are subtle; we scarcely even know ourselves when it is that we changed. At times one actually makes a momentous decision, but it isn't the decision that changes a person but rather the change brings about that decision, which hence retains the hypothesis that change is imperceptible at the individual level.

Attending conferences in a change perspective is a game of dice, that a person might profoundly be affected by a certain observation and start quoting it in his own arguments. It appears innocuously as another argument, a branching out of argument, but in fact it is a changed attitude.

If anything, this is really what is sought after by conference organisers, where Davos stands out spectacularly well as anyone with some curiosity in relation to any aspect of economic interaction globally knows with whom he or she can check that out, from IMF managing director or colleagues to, say research scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the US facility powering NASA space voyages.

If Dr Magufuli says he doesn't need to see any of these people since there aren't enough mosquito nets in hospitals yet, one can hold back a smile.

Put differently, conferences of an especially well empowered sort make us better people while remaining the same individuals, bring sharper insights in what we ourselves observe or discuss on a daily basis, and in a strict sense they are unavoidable. A sage is on record to have said that a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, while a fool only learns from his own mistakes, and that it what is risked when we put a country off conferences, that they are a waste of money. But do officials learn or just enjoy 'conference tourism'?

The degree to which officials learn depends on what sort of initiatives they are putting up, how taxing to the mind those initiatives are likely to be, and indeed, how far organisations depend on the level of clarity attained by each individual so as to move forward. In a closed situation where little of what is usually called 'enterprise' is taking place, that is, no risks are being taken as everything is well known, and attendance is just for allowances, conferences hardly achieve their aims. But that isn't a Davos weakness; it's a national one.

That is why a paradox of sorts is being experienced and hopefully it will start being resolved sooner than later, in the plausible impression that the fourth phase government didn't have many enterprising ideas to put into action, as most of its activities were shallow. Still its officials were the most exposed and outward bound, starting with the president, while current government officials definitely have tasks to achieve and some rudimentary philosophy of how to go about it, paraphrased 'hapa kazi tu.' Is it as workable, or a burden? To be fair, change ought to start somewhere, and revolutionary thinking (quite a few would say 'ideology') has it that one starts with what he or she has on hand, and another aspect of that thinking suggests that popular experience, culture, is the point of departure. 'Hapa kazi tu' is Zeitgeist, spirit of the time.

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