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Mark Malloch-Brown Headshot

Still Searching for the Big Idea

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As a party weary Davos stumbles into its final day it is still in search of its Big Idea, or for that matter Big Country for 2013. As predicted with many Asian and American politicians staying home, European leaders like punch drunk boxers who have gone too many rounds occupied centre stage, but many others seemed little interested in their troubles: the consensus at the start of the meeting, that the Euro will survive after all but Europe will be a low growth region for the foreseeable future, held. Even Mario Draghi, the Central Bank Governor credited with stopping the Euro's collapse confirmed that while disaster had been averted don't expect much growth. For the Davos growth seekers, who have long factored in European economic weakness, that made Europe's fractious squabbles entertaining perhaps but not terribly significant in their hunt for the next investment frontier.

So the Not The Next Big Idea was a stable but flat Europe. It's hard not to suspect this may prove a rather dangerously complacent Davos consensus. Mario Monti gave what many feared will be his first and last Davos appearance as Italian Prime Minister before returning to a turbulent domestic political landscape. Like Spain and Greece, delegates worried about rising risks of social protest. Experts worried about difficulties ahead in further banking and sovereign bailouts. There were voices in the corridors if not at the podiums who worried that Europe was not out of the woods yet.

Disgruntlement too that Europe's internal preoccupations had led it to take its eye off the ball in its broader neighbourhood of North Africa and the Middle East. So while there was relief at the unexpectedly moderate outcome of the Israeli election there was a recognition that it was still no mandate for peace negotiations. One Israeli told me only four new members of the new parliament had campaigned on an explicit peace platform. And indeed what peace, as frustration poured over in one session about the meltdown of Syria. An old UN economist chum of mine who for awhile had been the main reformer in the Assad regime (when there were such people), told me that he estimated the war had destroyed 35% of Syrian GDP. Others suggested the UN estimate of 60,000 deaths may be off. As many as 100,000 may have lost their lives. There was also grumbling to be heard of how little Western and Gulf money had actually gone into the new Arab Spring regimes that were struggling to show some kind of improvement in economic life to their citizens.

So the Davos Men and Women had to stare into the further distance for opportunity. Africa and Latin America were this year's winners. Given those who have gone before it is a dubious honour, even perhaps a bit of a curse, to be so honoured. For the poster boys of earlier years, the winner's crown often proves to be made of thorns not gold as economic growth promptly falls off.

Still it was a welcome recognition. The most powerful group of Davos business titans, the CEOs of its 100 top tier members, in their private session apparently concluded: it's Africa's time. And indeed it has for some years had some of the highest growth national economies. There is a middle class developing which is becoming a domestic engine of demand as the continent urbanises. The cell phone has been more a tool of change in Africa than perhaps anywhere else. Kenya is arguably the global leader in mobile banking. Factoids of this kind dropped off eager Davos tongues.

The siege of the Algerian gas installation was taken as a cautionary reminder by some though of the dangers of commodity based growth: the inequality and corruption that easily accompanies them and the vulnerability of this kind of infrastructure to terrorism.

But Davos had found at least half an idea. Africa may not be quite ready for the bright lights of WEF prime time but it's on the move and that sadly is more than can be said for Europe.