Saturday, Jun. 26, 2010

Global Forum in South Africa Kicks Off

In geographic terms, Robben Island sits in the Atlantic Ocean, just a few miles from Cape Town's bustling waterfront, which is nestled beneath Table Mountain. But for decades, it was a world away. The island was long a notorious hub of injustice, the captive home of political prisoners like Nelson Mandela. On June 26, the morning that the Fortune/TIME/CNN Global Forum got under way, some of us participants were lucky enough to visit the island and hear a moving description of life in the prison from Ahmed Kathrada, one of those sentenced along with Mandela to life imprisonment after the famous Rivonia trial of 1964. The contrast between what South Africa was then — a pariah state organized through a cruel and comprehensive system of racial segregation — and the nation's potential today provided the perfect introduction to the program.

The theme of the forum — which more than 350 leaders of business, government and civil society are attending — is "The New Global Opportunity." That phrase has a double meaning. In one sense, it reflects the well-established understanding that growth in the global economy is increasingly going to come from the less-developed areas of the world — from Asia, of course, but also from places such as Latin America and Africa. For all the many challenges Africa faces, and for the depth of poverty on the continent (some 70% of the world's poorest people live in Africa), there is a growing sense of excitement that its potential riches might soon be developed and trickle down to those who need their benefits most. Africa has had a good few years: economic growth in the years before the Great Recession was averaging more than 6% annually, and one of the themes of the forum will be to explore how that growth can be renewed. With the eyes of the world on Africa during the soccer World Cup, management consultancies such as McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group have released reports detailing the extent to which Africa can be a focus for any company or industry looking to develop future markets and sources of innovation.

But there is a new global opportunity in a second sense, one that has less to do with corporate performance — and this too will be examined during the forum. There is a broad consensus among many economists that the global economy before the recession was seriously unbalanced: that it privileged certain industries and skills and that the benefits of growth were not equitably spread. So sessions at the forum will look at how growth can be more inclusive, benefiting those who have been marginalized in the past. It will look at the phenomenal role women can play in developing economies — the fact that modern China has taken the education of its girls seriously is a potent contributor to its success. And the forum will explore whether growth in the future can be more sustainable, so that resources are available for those generations who come after us.

It's going to be a busy and exciting few days; we'll bring you more reports of the forum's events and discussions.