Taking water and sanitation to the ‘mythical mountain’

Margaret Batty, WaterAid’s Director of Global Policy and Campaigns, gives her personal reflection on the 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.


28 Jan 2015

An unexpected, but very welcome, chance to attend the World Economic Forum (WEF) came to WaterAid, courtesy of our partners at the Unilever global advocacy team. Unilever wanted more voices talking about the links between safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), nutrition and health, and the forthcoming Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end extreme poverty. We jumped at the opportunity, and within days I found myself on a dawn flight to Zurich, en route to vertiginous Davos.

Davos, the ‘mythical mountain’, the ‘pistes of power’, is the home of the annual exclusive gathering of the WEF. 2,500 influential world leaders, drawn from a heady cocktail of business, politics, celebrity, media and academia, gather here to ‘ponder world problems and pose interesting, innovative and actionable solutions’. 40 heads of state descended, together with Pharrell Williams, Bill Gates, Ban Ki-moon, Christine Lagarde and… me. How to navigate this seemingly impenetrable fortress of power and get our issues heard?

Davos for newbies

There is a common psychological phenomenon known as ‘imposter syndrome’, through which you feel you don’t belong or have a right to be somewhere… well, I can confide that it was with some trepidation that ‘Margaret the Imposter’ walked into Davos. My aim was to demystify Davos and to judge whether our advocacy would be well placed there. I devoured all the advice I could find for Davos newbies:

  • ‘Sit on the conference shuttle buses and talk to everyone who gets on.’ This advice clearly pre-dated the age of mobile phone addiction, because this tactic failed miserably.
  • ‘Don’t bother with normal shoes, wear snow boots at all times.’ Great practical advice – clumpy snow boots are a surprising social leveller, being devoid of style and dignity.
  • ‘Embrace the random and don’t be starstruck (uncool).’ Top tip – I vowed to strike up conversations with anyone within earshot at any time. I met one of the hottest new young women entrepreneurs, the CEO of TaskRabbit, this way, but I also unintentionally ignored Richard Branson, Arianna Huffington and Muhammad Yunus.

I can now add two tips, based on my own Davos experience:

  • Perfect the lobbying art of ‘sofa busking’. Like the few other NGO representatives, I lacked the golden entry pass to the formal congress centre, but I soon discovered that the ancient art of gate-crashing works wonders at the WEF. Abide by the rule – ‘There is no such thing as a private reception or closed door’ – and try to blag your way into everything and speak to everyone.  
  • Get as much for free as you can (Switzerland is pricey). After paying $2.50 to wee in a public railway station toilet, I vowed not to ‘spend a penny’ in Davos (pardon the pun), and embraced the hospitality of many attendees.

Powerful thoughts

So was it a worthwhile 36 hours? I came away with the strong feeling that the ‘Davos dialogue dial’ is shifting to encompass human and social development, as well as economic growth. The by-line of the WEF, ‘Committed to improve the state of the world’, might seem glib, but topics trending at Davos this year were Africa, equal growth, inequalities, women, health, world population, digital impact and financial uncertainty. Water was the top risk identified in the Global Risks 2015 WEF report.

Take a look at these ‘five most powerful thoughts’ from WEF 2015:

  1. “For the first time in human history we can now envisage a world without absolute poverty and hunger.” Johan Rockstrom, Stockholm University
  2. “It doesn’t matter what your title is or how much money you make. It doesn’t matter how famous you are. But what does matter is – Did you make a difference?” Bill George, US businessman and academic
  3. “65% of today’s school kids will end up doing jobs that haven’t been invented yet.” Alexis Ringwold, CEO Learn Up
  4. “If you don’t innovate fast, disrupt your organisation, disrupt yourself, you’ll be left behind.” John Chambers, CISCO
  5. “Excess inequality is not good for sustainable growth.” Christine Lagarde, IMF

The potential historic gravitas of 2015 seems to have finally hit home to international decision-makers and leaders. As Chief UN SDG Advisor Amina Mohammed said at Davos, “The new SDG framework to be agreed this year, is ours to be had, and ours to lose. There has not been such a seminal year for international affairs since 1945.”

The ‘fringe’ space at WEF is opening up. I met someone who bemoaned the fact that most WEF sessions are now open and accessible online, and that there is as much of interest outside the formal conference as within its halls. But hers was a lone voice. I also met colleagues from Oxfam, Save the Children and World Vision who were experimenting with advocacy at Davos for the first time this year too, supported by their corporate partners.

Davos means different things to different people. I certainly did not move in the elevated circles of the world’s leaders, and I doubt that all 2,500 delegates were focused on sustainable development and the eradication of poverty. But inequalities and people-centred development discussions were upfront and central, and I have never seen so many of our key international stakeholders corralled in one place at one time.

In Davos, alongside the ostentatious fur coats and limos, you can gorge freely on the riches of ideas, debate, innovative thinking, sharp intellect and passion of world leaders determined to use their positions to bring about positive change. 

We are not alone

The most profound reflection that hit me at Davos was that WaterAid is not alone. Advocacy is not just about us getting a platform and spreading the WASH word, it is investment in countless hours of relationship-building and persuasive encounters, across the whole organisation.

When a whisper from WaterAid is amplified and magnified by Paul Polman, Helen Clark, Kevin Rudd, Jim Kim, Jan Eliasson and others, we know we are making a difference. A cacophony of powerful voices joining WaterAid and making the case for WASH is the pay-off for a million fragments of influential advocacy over the years.        

Many WaterAid staff, supporters and partners have influenced key leaders over the years, causing people-centred development and the WASH crisis to be on the agenda of one of the most quietly powerful and influential gatherings in the world.

Our impact has snowballed onto the Davos agenda, and this will hopefully play out in the critical negotiations on development financing, climate change and the Sustainable Development Goals, which will determine whether we are going to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.      

Margaret Batty is WaterAid’s Director of Global Policy and Campaigns. She tweets at @margaretbatty and you can read more of her work here.