At Davos, cheerleaders for globalization puzzle over how to save it from itself

What next?
What next?
Image: World Economic Forum
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Davos, Switzerland

It goes without saying that if you ask a room full of delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos if they think globalization is a good thing, the majority will say yes. At the start of a panel today on “Saving Economic Globalization from Itself,” Quartz’s Kevin Delaney asked for a show of hands on whether globalization is a net positive for society; nearly all hands went up.

On stage, Sharan Burrow was one of the few who kept her arms down. The general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation said the current model of globalization has failed working people, since it is “built on low pay, insecure, and often unsafe work.”

The rest of the panel, despite their more favorable opinion of global economic integration, did not necessarily disagree. They offered a range of things to address globalization’s shortcomings, in a refreshingly direct and detailed way.

ICICI Bank’s CEO, Chanda Kochhar, emphasized “economic inclusion” of poor, rural villages in India. The bank picked 500 of them and digitized payment systems and opened bank accounts for their residents. A bank-funded training program for 200,000 young people—for skills like stitching and brickmaking as much as programming or other digital activities—led to more than 90% finding work, or starting their own companies and creating more jobs in the process, she said.

Colombian finance minister Mauricio Cardenas said promoting the skills that people need to thrive in a globalized economy is relatively simple: “Create more slots at universities.” Progress means getting a majority of secondary-school students into college; then policy makers can tackle how to improve what kids study, including STEM subjects.

Ebay CEO Devin Wenig, not surprisingly, said giving even the smallest businesses access to global markets is key, citing “education and access” as the keys to making globalization work for more people. “We’re in a moment in time when there is a convergence of interests” between companies, governments, and society, added Rich Lesser, CEO of the Boston Consulting Group. “It’s in business’s best interest to take a broader approach.”

Minouche Shafik, director of the London School of Economics, continued the education thread by noting that people starting work today “will need to retool several times” over the course of their careers, changing jobs and industries far more than earlier generations. In a fast-changing, interconnected world, “teaching people how to learn” will be important, since non-routine and non-repetitive jobs will be some of the only ones safe from automation.

It’s no accident that voters with low levels of education have showed a strong preference for populist, protectionist parties recently, she added. Far from being duped, it’s smart of them to reject a system that isn’t working for them—at least not yet. To win them back, she said, “We need to rethink how we are going to help people adjust to this new economy.”