SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt: The World Economic Forum is, for better or worse, essentially about strengthening ties between government and business. A number of representatives from civil societies also attend, but ultimately the true theme of the forum, globalization, is driven by business interests.
Nevertheless, a number of social issues were addressed by the forum s regional meeting, which concluded yesterday in Sharm El-Sheikh, because they relate directly to better business and economic prosperity. The most prominent of these were education and the role of women in the workforce.
With education, as with so many fields that once fell mainly in the domain of government or at least outside the direct domain of business, discussions centered on public-private partnership. This partnership is now common in a range of areas, from the drafting of legislation to the provision of essential services.
Such partnership is increasingly being extended to education because of the need to converge the demands of business with the supply of the education system, whether through the formulation of curriculum, the supply of equipment or the creation of hands-on training programs. It is also necessary because of the growing popularity of the use of computers as a tool to engage students.
The main accomplishment of the forum on the education front is the Egyptian Education Initiative, which will involve improving the use of technology in 2,000 schools. Eight multinational companies signed a letter of intent confirming their commitment to this initiative.
In terms of gender issues, attention was drawn to the potential contribution of women to the economy and the opportunity lost in the event of their exclusion.
The debate on the empowerment of women has been elevated from one that is just about achieving equality for women to achieving development to all, says Jordan s Queen Rania. In other words, people are beginning to realize that women need to be integrated, not only for the sake of women but for the sake of the development of the whole country.
This again ties into globalization because of the impact of the exclusion of women from the workforce on the global competitiveness of a country.
The forum is very eager to make certain that in its upcoming gender index report that instead of only two Arab countries being included in the index that all of the Arab countries [be included], so that the notion of how the gender gap relates to competitiveness becomes very clear, says Holly Sargent, senior associate dean for advancement and senior director of women s studies initiatives at Harvard University.
The image of the region subsequent to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 was also discussed. The opposition in the United States to the acquisition of six ports by Dubai Ports World is a demonstration of the region s deteriorating image and the impact of this on global business. The forum took initial steps to address the region s image in general by creating a task force from the private sector to fund a branding campaign with the slogan Red Tape Out, Red Carpet In.
Growing government revenues from high oil prices prompted a debate on how to spend these funds. The absolutely key items are institution-building, education, infrastructure-building and investing in health, says William Rhodes, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Citicorp Holdings and Citibank, who contrasts the current oil boom with the rise of oil prices in the 1970s, when Gulf governments lacked the infrastructure and open markets to use the growing oil receipts effectively.
Rhodes warned of the public backlash if these funds are misused. If you have, as you do in some of the countries [in the region], tremendous flows of funds coming in, and the man or woman on the street does not see that there are [not only] educational opportunities but also healthcare opportunities for them, they re going to question what the government and private sector are doing with these funds, says Rhodes.
Perhaps the most substantial business development at the forum was the agreement by the Egyptian government to consider amending its policies for foreign airlines to operate in its skies. If implemented, this would remove restrictions on all airports with the notable exception of Cairo.
Stelio Haji-Ioannou, chairman of easyGroup, says that this will encourage tourism, which will in turn generate jobs in a number of related sectors, including hotels, restaurants and bars. He adds that increased tourism will also address the region s image problem, because it involves direct and personal engagement between cultures.