Why I go to Davos

January 31, 2019 by Steve Davis

The Davos session on The Cost of Inequality reminded those gathered that without a serious commitment to reform tax structures and end tax avoidance, inequality will only grow. Photo: WEF.

The Davos session on The Cost of Inequality reminded those gathered that without a serious commitment to reforming tax structures and ending tax avoidance, inequality will only grow. Photo: WEF.

PATH’s CEO reflects on challenges and opportunities from this year’s World Economic Forum.

Davos, Switzerland. Frenetic days and nights. Schlepping up and down icy streets in sub-zero temperatures. Routinely bumping into heads of state, celebrities, and titans of industry. And, above all, fascinating conversations about the state—and future—of our world.

Davos is a complicated place for a social sector leader. The inherent conflict in doing my day job isn’t lost on me – obsessively focusing on health equity and innovation for low-resource settings in a quaint and expensive ski village where 1,500 private jets are on standby at the airport. Yet Davos provides an opportunity to challenge parts of the system that are driving global inequities. And although every year I have to make a set of personal and political compromises at Davos and push uncomfortably hard on agendas critical to PATH’s work, I also relish the opportunity to collaborate with many well-intentioned global leaders on ways to change the world for the better.

At the end of the day, for most attending CEOs, Davos represents a remarkably efficient way to get work done.

I spend my time in Davos meeting with global leaders from government, industry, foundations and NGOs to discuss trends and opportunities to improve health in low-resource settings. These are the types of conversations that have led to some of global health’s most innovative and powerful ideas, including Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI, for short), for both of which PATH has been a critical partner.

I also meet with dozens of PATH’s partners to deepen our collaboration and strike new opportunities across our portfolio, which includes accelerating the development of new vaccines, advancing digital heath tools, strengthening global health security, recommitting to industry and government partners to focus on key policy wins, product development opportunities, and system strengthening initiatives.

It’s also a joy at Davos to meet with the new generation of health and technology leaders from Africa and Asia whose energy and insight will continue to advance global health and development.

And it’s a week of precious intensity and so-called “Davos moments.” Peculiar moments can punctuate your day, such as standing on the street with Bill Gates waiting for Prince William’s entourage to pass by, or asking a guy at a cocktail party what he did for a living and learning that he was the Prime Minister of Ireland. When it’s finished, I bring home a few things. A pile of dirty winter wear. A hankering for home-cooked meals. A ream of notes on what I’ve learned and new ideas I have, and what it might mean for PATH’s mission to advance health equity through innovation and partnerships.

Steve Davis at Davos 2019

At Davos this year, there were many discussions about challenges and seemingly intractable problems, but I also came away with renewed confidence that the forces of innovation and partnership can solve some of the biggest global problems.

PATH's mission couldn’t be more relevant than it is today.

But our sector, too, isn’t without its challenges. Volatility and uncertainty leave nongovernmental organizations like PATH (and others at Davos) susceptible to funding challenges and shifting priorities while humanitarian and multi-lateral programs increasingly overlap with our work.

We’re also facing an eroding belief in the promise of technology thanks to the scourge of false online information and cybersecurity issues, along with less-than-trustworthy business practices overreaching into our privacy and security.

However, technology also represents a powerful tool for improving health equity. That’s why PATH is committed to working even harder with our partners to ensure appropriate use and good governance. We’re looking at how to leverage the Internet of Things for health and development, and to ensure data is used smartly, ethically, and appropriately to guide decisions. Our Digital Health team is collaborating with governments in Africa and South Asia to explore how digital tools and technologies can improve health outcomes. We’re also partnering with the World Health Organization to create an all-up digital health strategy to support countries’ efforts to transform their health systems.

Against that backdrop, Davos is also rife with stark and challenging discussions for which there are no good answers. Perhaps the biggest takeaway this year was that, put plainly, the world is in a precarious state. Despite a few hardline defenders of the status quo, the majority of conversations were decidedly more sober than in the past. Even the official agenda included more sessions related to how disorderly our global system truly is—and the treacherous path society walks if we don’t hasten change. A powerful example of the tenor this year was captured in a session about economic equality in which Dutch historian Rutger Bregman and Oxfam Executive Director Winnie Byanyima reminded those gathered that without a serious commitment to reform tax structures and end tax avoidance, inequality will only grow.

It’s daunting to review the odds we’re up against: climate change and the future of energy; vast income inequality; a trade conflict between the United States and China that threatens to further weaken the global economy; the sobering consequences if new technologies like artificial intelligence and genomics are misused; the dangerous rise of authoritarianism and nationalism; and global conflicts just about everywhere.

And, of course, persistent challenges in global health.

For PATH, it means our work is even more important, but it’s going to be even harder to do. While the world has made remarkable progress over the past few decades, health inequities abound. The world needs health innovation and partnership on a scale it hasn’t seen before.

Seeking new possibilities

Davos is only a week, but it’s a rarified view. It certainly shined a light on some of the toughest global challenges we face, and there are many. But it revealed something more: possibility.

The breadth of expertise and leadership discussing these critical issues left me stunned, excited, and optimistic. The tone was authentic, the ideas were bold but attainable, and the commitments were real.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea this year was the multisectoral push for improved primary health care in private and public systems around the world. Access to quality primary health care is a fundamental human right and essential to realizing the Sustainable Development Goal of Universal Health Coverage. The World Economic Forum has taken a leadership role in this work, and there is now a range of unconventional private-sector players adding their experience, products, and talent to drive progress. Royal Philips, Microsoft, Wipro, Tata and others, as well as more established health and pharmaceutical-industry leaders, know this is one of the world’s most winnable fights over the next decade.

I am particularly excited about the new models that bring more front-line private sector providers into primary health care in order to address the growing challenges of equitable health delivery in rapidly expanding low-resource urban communities, and in our ability to use new digital and data tools to address previously unmet needs.

I left Davos feeling as if I had viewed two sides of a ledger. On one, myriad challenges and seemingly intractable problems risk driving global powers apart, not together.

But on the other side (the one I pay closer attention to), I know that the forces of innovation and partnership are the only way we’ll halt the rising tide of global disorder. That we can solve some of the biggest global problems.

And that PATH is at the ready.

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