Even by the time of the opening press conference of this year’s World Economic Forum, it was clear that an unfamiliar emotion will overshadow discussions this week. It’s a widespread public anger at the irresponsibility and greed of business and at the failure of governments and regulators to hold them in check. It is a long time since our corporate and political leaders have been held in such low regard.
From my talks so far, I believe this anger is understood. But what’s needed now is to go beyond this recognition that people feel badly feel let down.
It is not enough for business leaders—and there are more here in Davos than ever before—to admit their collective mistakes. They will only start winning back trust by committing themselves to change the way they operate and focus on social outcomes as well as profit.
Nowhere is this shift in approach needed more than in Africa. The continent’s long-term prospects are better than any time since independence. But the global downturn risks are undermining progress. It is not just in the interest of Africa but also of business that this does not happen.
Africa represents a vast potential market of nearly 500 million consumers. But many still lack access to the most basic services.
By finding ways to provide services and goods more cheaply, businesses can boost development, increase incomes and increase markets for goods. There are huge opportunities, for example, in renewable energy which can help increase economic growth and help tackle climate change.
Beyond public relations
The Africa progress panel is already working with senior African and international business leaders to identify opportunities. I hope to set out in Cape Town this summer specific initiatives which can help accelerate progress to the benefit of everyone.
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We need to go beyond public relations and cosmetic corporate social responsibility programmes. It’s by what they do, not what they say, that an angry public will now judge business leaders.
Kofi Annan is a former secretary general of the United Nations.
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