Creating Change in the Midst of Crisis: Re-thinking Our Values

In past years at Davos, I often found myself in early morning optional sessions on social responsibility, in small rooms on the third floor of the conference center, with people like Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. But this year, Muhammad and I were on a panel in the main floor in a prime time plenary session at the World Economic Forum called "Re-thinking Values in the Post-Crisis World." Because of the economic crisis, values have become a central conversation at Davos 2010.

We were joined by several CEOs, and all seemed to agree that underneath the economic crisis is also a crisis of values. Last year at Davos, I said that asking "When will the crisis end" was the wrong question, and the right question to ask was "How will this crisis change us?" So a year later, our panel took up the question of how much we are changing. I said that massive bank bonuses in the face of massive economic suffering were a moral scandal, but they were only the symptom of a deeper erosion of societal values. Many seemed to agree, and the word "greed" was lifted up as a primary cause of this crisis, as were "selfishness" and "short-termism." The market is supposed to be a means, not an end in itself. The creation of wealth, necessary goods and services, and jobs -- including the goal of helping lift people out of poverty -- were all set aside for the narrowest goals of simply making as much money as possible. I talked about the need to build "a common good economy" with multiple stakeholders and not just shareholders; and Muhammad Yunus explained his concept of "social business" based on "selflessness" instead of selfishness. One CEO said, "the critics of capitalism are now rising up, and this time, they're not Marxists."

In his opening address later that day, World Economic Forum founder and Executive Chairman Klaus Schwab warned against the danger of thinking the crisis had passed and quickly getting back to "business as usual." Schwab said the WEF was committed to "re-thinking our values, re-designing our systems, and re-building our institutions." If we don't do that, he said, the financial crisis will become a social crisis.

He then introduced Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, who was surprisingly candid and clear about the causes of this crisis: "the entrepreneur gave way to the speculator" out for a "fast buck." It was an economics only for "here and now" resulting in a "depreciation of the future." He asked, "How can we return the economy to the service of humankind?" Sarkozy suggested that it was time to put environmental law, labor law, and health law on the same level as trade law and even to consider taxing financial transactions. Banks, he said, have the job of assessing the risks of lending in order to finance the growth of the economy, not speculating for their own huge profits -- agreeing with President Obama's efforts to dissuade banks from proprietary speculation.

And the French president specifically said we can no longer "relegate half of humanity to the sidelines" -- a theme I presented earlier in the day to a "social ideas laboratory" of leaders from business, politics, and civil society. I pointed out that even before this crisis, the global economic system was already failing half of God's children -- three billion people living on less than $2 per day. This is the time to bring them in and include them in the global economy.

These were not the issues at the center of discussion at Davos in past years. The shift shows the opportunity within crisis -- one that we dare not miss.