Philanthropy University CEO Connor Diemand-Yauman reflects on his first time at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Forum and this year’s most prominent topics of discussion.

Davos, the World Economic Forum’s illustrious annual meeting, concluded last Friday. After returning from the conference late last night, here’s my “Top Five” list from the week:

Blockchain is a big deal

If I had a nickel for every time I heard the word “Blockchain” at Davos, I’d roughly have the equivalent of one bitcoin. Blockchain permeated nearly every panel, dinner and side conversation at the conference. For those new to the topic, “blockchain” refers to “an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way.” Think of it like the functionality of a shared Google doc: everyone with the right permissions to a Google doc is able to edit the same set of data, with changes publicly and chronologically updated.

At Davos, blockchain was discussed as an innovation with boundless potential (as well as boundless appetite for investment across sectors). While most of the conversations centered on financial applications of the technology, I was pleasantly surprised to hear the humanitarian sector buzzing with ideas as well.

I participated in one roundtable centered on the potential to use blockchain technology to more effectively identify, track and support aid organizations and individuals in the Global South. Imagine giving refugees an enduring identity that transcends governments or borders; logging a local nonprofit’s progress and needs throughout its lifespan; or immediately funding a humanitarian-focused nonprofit the second catastrophe descends on a local community. These possibilities are really exciting, and nearly within grasp.

The most interesting blockchain innovations discussed rest on the creation of accurate, enduring and secure identities of users. The implications of such a technology for local civil society organizations are vast and profound. Of the opportunities in immediate striking range, I’m most excited about enabling local civil society organizations (and the leaders that build them) to own and transport their data, while building new and innovative services on top of these secure identity layers. This is a promising space that Philanthropy University is keen to explore.

So is Artificial Intelligence (AI)

AI was another hallmark of the conference, however there was a depressing lack of groundbreaking new insights. To save you time, allow me to summarize the panels and conversations on AI with the following sound bytes:

“AI will save us.”
“AI will doom us.”
“AI + Blockchain is the future.”
“AI will take a lot of people’s jobs.”

Similar to blockchain, the implications of AI on the development sector are seemingly boundless, especially in the field of capacity building (a core focus of our work at Philanthropy University). For example, AI advancements could allow for more effective, customized online learning modalities, analyzing massive amounts of performance data to deliver specific units of knowledge precisely when they’re needed. AI is also sure to allow for significant improvements to the underlying technological infrastructure needed to access these resources: computers and mobile devices will become more powerful; data and electricity will flow more freely.

Women and girls are at the forefront of development

Malala said it best: “If girls are not part of all your plans, you’re missing out on the biggest untapped potential.”

I was heartened to see the emphasis on the empowerment of women and girls at Davos this year, from Macron’s full-throated support of women’s rights to a small dinner in which leaders like Christine Lagarde and Daniel Schulman recognized that women are the economic key to lifting poverty-stricken countries. The need to place more decision-making power in the hands of girls and women was a key take away from these discussions. This message is particularly resonant given Philanthropy University’s support of the incredible work of the With and For Girls Collective, which finds and funds girl-led and girl-centered grassroots organizations.

The enormity of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

I noticed an almost palpable anxiety surrounding the enormity of the SDGs. At multiple moments throughout the conference, I heard leaders bemoan the trillions of dollars that would be required to fulfill these commitments as well as the need for more significant coordination and innovation in our approaches.

While at times intimidating, the necessary ambitiousness of the SDGs is exactly what prompted the creation of Philanthropy University. We know that local organizations are vital in achieving the Agenda 2030, and that by strengthening their capacity—as prompted by SDG17—we will transform development from the ground up.

With that said, the SDGs are immense, and these anxieties should indeed prompt significant reflection on our funding mechanisms as well as how this funding is being allocated (including the expectant ROI). Status quo funding and programs will not suffice.

China and the geopolitical leadership vacuum

Not surprisingly, and in no small part due to Trump’s appearance, many of my one-on-one conversations (especially with those from abroad) centered on what they described as “the leadership vacuum” of the West and the resulting geopolitical uncertainty.

China’s prominent role in this year’s Davos was no coincidence. Whispers of the expanding Belt and Road Initiative (now being compared to the new World Trade Organization) were heard throughout the week, and Chinese leaders were present throughout many panels and dinners. This aggressive and opportunistic expansion of China’s role could have significant implications for the philanthropic sector, and therefore civil society organizations worldwide. Leaders in the philanthropic sector should watch these developments closely, and continue to advocate for their constituents (especially local organizations) in the shifting development landscape.

Thank you to all our partners (both current and future) for the inspiring meetings and discussion. I look forward to next year’s conference, and more importantly, our critical work and collaboration in the interim. Onward and upward!

March 2, 2018


Connor is the CEO of Philanthropy U. He is passionate about systems-level change, local social impact and education reform.


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