A Visit to Davos

By Matthieu Ricard on February 11, 2009

Is there a place in the Davos World Economic Forum for a Buddhist monk who dedicates his time to humanitarian work? The forum organizers seemed to think so and kindly invited me to attend the conferences and share some ideas.

Although the current dire crisis in the world economy had been predicted by a number of top economists, there has been little effort made to stop and re-evaluate our economic and social behavior. The present economic situation the world finds itself in has been compounded by the self-centered thinking of a number of people who, fuelled by their desire for wealth and acting as if they were playing at the casino, ignored the consequences that could befall those who put their trust in them, causing them in the end to lose their lifelong savings. As Gandhi once said: ‟There is enough for everyone's need, but there never will be enough for everyone's greed.”

I attended, in particular, a session entitled ‟Helping Others”, which explored how philanthropy is being affected by the current crisis. It seems that attitudes have been of two kinds: most of the companies that had been engaging in social and charitable work when they had a large financial surplus, or chiefly to promote their image, have, for the most part, announced that they will stop their support as a result of the crisis.

On the other hand, corporations that have embedded in their core mission the dedication of some of their resources, efforts and creativity to humanitarian projects saw no reason to give up their goals just because the road has become a bit more bumpy.  Some of them have even said that they are going to increase their contributions — which seems logical, since their assistance is most needed when people face increased hardship.

In fact, in the past, such corporations seem to have been faring better during crises. The search for a ‘selfish happiness' results in everyone losing in the end. If profit is the sole and unique purpose of an enterprise, in the absence of profit there is no goal left. Conversely, if there is an established social or humanitarian component in the goal, all those who participate in it, from the boss to the employees, are more motivated to go through difficult times together.

Altruism seems to be the single factor that could integrate three different time-scales related to the well-being of those affected by the economy. In the short term, an altruistic attitude can prevent us from cynically ignoring the well-being of those whose resources we manipulate. In the medium term, altruism makes us care for the quality of life of all those involved in the company's activities. In the long term, altruism keeps us from neglecting the well-being and survival of future generations through ignoring the impact of our activities on the environment.

Let us hope that those who are powerful forces in our world will have the wisdom and compassion to change their global perspective and move beyond the self-serving, dysfunctional ways that have prevailed in recent years.