Next week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, a Swiss alpine town and ski resort, offers President Mnangagwa a significant opportunity to rub shoulders with heads of major international companies alongside an invited selection of heads of state, heads of international organisations, top economists, academics and regulars of the international elite circuit.
The forum is the centre of the globalisation movement. It is organised and funded by a non-profit foundation which groups around 1 000 major international companies, outfits with turnover exceeding $5 billion each a year, and whose CEOs all have automatic attendance rights. The rest of the 2 500 participants are there by invitation only, and President Mnangagwa is the first Zimbabwean leader invited.
While there are a little over 200 formal sessions, no one can attend more than a handful in the four-day programme. The main function of the forum is to allow less formal contact and discussion, networking as the business world tends to describe it.
So what benefit does our President and our country obtain from the invitation?
President Mnangagwa has made it very clear, several times that he wants Zimbabwe to open up to the world economically and politically and use that opening to create economic growth and rapidly rising standards of living for Zimbabweans. And this requires far more than the normal diplomatic and political channels. Davos offers the opportunity to make personal contact with at least some of the shakers and movers of the economic world, the sort of people who make the bulk of the final decisions concerning foreign direct investment for example.
So the President can make himself known as someone who is approachable, who can listen to concerns and who can be trusted to negotiate in good faith. The fact that he is an astute politician, known as being pro-business and who can at least discuss business and economic matters intelligently will become better known.
Obviously detailed investment negotiations are not part of this sort of meeting. And in any case these are done at lower levels. But for Zimbabwe to be known as a country willing to do business, and welcoming to those who want to do business, is important. And if some heads of potential investing companies have actually met the head of state over a cup of coffee they can include that assessment of seriousness in future decisions to open more direct dealings and negotiations.
Although economists like to believe that personal factors never influence economic decisions, everyone else knows that they do; this is one reason why business people play golf together and belong to associations from Rotary upwards.
The President also gets a far better idea of just what are the biggest single concerns that worry those who to large extent have the biggest say in how the global economy works. Clearly Davos: A major opening for Zimbabwe
no political leader is going to give the business world everything it wants, but often a sensitivity to real concerns can lead to changes, major and minor, that do no harm to Zimbabwe but yet can have a significant impact on how the country is perceived.
Of course there are other contacts, with international organisations who may want to chat less formally than the meetings of a row of dark-suited ladies and gentlemen down each side of a table. And there will be other heads of state and government who will be at least curious what sort of man Zimbabwe has thrown up as its new President.
The invitation is also an indication that some important people in the business world recognise that Zimbabwe has made a major shift, and incidentally has a legal and legitimate Government that can follow through on the shift. Simply sending the invitation is a serious vote of confidence and a sign that Zimbabwe could well be moving forward. Sometimes perception is almost as important as substance.
So there are not going to be any spectacular deals sunk at Davos, nor any breakthroughs announced a week later. But attendance at the meeting lays the groundwork for the hard graft that the new Government, its diplomats and Zimbabwe’s business community can build on as we move out of our unsplendid isolation and into the fast-changing modern world.