Josette Sheeran on the ‘APEC divide’ from both extremes

Chris Schnabel
Josette Sheeran on the ‘APEC divide’ from both extremes

Alecs Ongcal

(UPDATED) The former head of the World Food Programme and vice chairman of the World Economic Forum provides an insight into the relevance of high-level summits like APEC

MANILA, Philippines – Global mega-events that bring together the world’s elite are guaranteed to generate strong opinions that highlight the divide between the powerful and the downtrodden.

This is particularly true when these events are held in developing nations where the question of whether the global elite are out of touch with the poor, or whether they even care, are often raised.

The Philippines, as host to the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting is the latest to exhibit this, with protests a regular occurrence throughout the week covering everything from onerous economic policies to government militarization

“Some of the criticism surrounding summits like APEC are true, but we have to understand the enormous transformation the world is going through before criticizing,” said Asia Society CEO Josette Sheeran in an interview with Rappler on November 17. (READ: APEC Special Lanes for whom?)

Sheeran has made a unique circuit of international positions of power, having served as both the executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP) and vice-chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

As she puts it: “With the WFP, I spent most of my time at the frontlines of war and disaster in the world’s poorest places like Somalia and Afghanistan.”

“And then, with the WEF, I went from the poorest of the poor, the bottom 10% or the bottom billion, to really the top 1% of the world, the CEOs and world leaders.”

Perspective needed

One thing we have to look at is the sheer economic transformation the world has experienced over the past 30 years, she pointed out.

“Asia alone has lifted more people out of poverty in the last 30 years than all of human history combined so it’s not all bad news,” Sheeran said.

The rise of technology has also changed the way people view the world. In a smartphone, for example, one has access to more information in the palm of your hand than any US President before Barack Obama.

It also allows people to see the stark contrast between their situations and those of the elite, as well as allow them to see better possibilities for their life.

“What we’re seeing today is that everyone, even in places like Darfur, have access to the Internet. They now see that this ‘world of better’ and so when their leaders tell them it can’t get better, people aren’t taking that for an answer anymore.”

This rise of discontent, she added, is something that the world has to pay attention to, particularly the top 1%, often the sole participants in summits like APEC. (READ: Filipina startup founder shares stage with Obama, Jack Ma)

“The disconnect between the delegates and the poor is very serious,” she said, “and these summits risk becoming irrelevant if this isn’t addressed.”

Its crucial then, she added, that these summits make sure that they bring in the voices of the youth, women, the rural people as a source of inspiration and connection.

Youthful endeavor

In this respect, she reserved particular praise for the decision to hold the APEC SME Summit during the leader’s week when interest in APEC is at is highest, the first time this was done.

“Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) constitute 99% of the businesses in the Philippines, and they provide 65% of the jobs so how can we be talking about the global economy without the SMEs there?” Sheeran asked. (READ: APEC leaders: Intensify efforts for MSMEs, embrace digital economy)

It also connects the youth with their new ways of thinking and their ability with technology to connect with people who can magnify their ideas.

“The power of technology is such that it creates people who are powerful and connected to markets, to solutions, and to other collaborators,” she said, “and the ones solving global problems are the youth and their startups.” (READ: Lessons that help startups thrive)

“I think there’s a tribe of people emerging in the world, problem solvers, who are saying we’re not going to wait, it’s not good enough for people to suffer the way they are now, and I’m going to fix it. “

A poignant example of this is an invention of a 22-year-old called the Lucky Iron Fish, which presents an affordable and simple way to end anemia – an epidemic throughout Asia that causes multiple deaths – simply by dropping it into a bowl.

“It costs $5, lasts 5 years, and you put it in a rice pot and it cures anemia. That’s a game changer,” she said, as biotech solutions were too expensive and hard to transport which limited their effectivity.

“What this shows is that if you were a smart businessman or [a] leader, you’d be begging to get young people in who can help apply their ideas to solve world problems,” Sheeran said.

For Sheeran, the future will be people who look at the world and figure out how to make things easier, from treating epidemics to hailing a cab, and improving lives in the process .

“I think the pace setting in the world now isn’t people looking at world leaders and saying ‘help me, help me.’ It’s people who are saying get out of the way we’re going to fix this,” she said. 

Maintaining stability

It may seem then that top level summits are fated to lose their relevance in the future but they do play an integral part by maintaining stability and aligning their countries’ interests. (READ: FULL TEXT: 2015 APEC Leaders’ Declaration)

Summits like APEC create regional links and bind different countries through trade. Also, despite all the high-level formality present at these occasions, it also provides world and business leaders with an opportunity to connect on a personal level.

The majority of the people lifted out of poverty in the last 30 years came from China, a result of its opening up to global trade and investment, which is what events like APEC facilitate. (READ: APEC 2015: Xi pushes ‘win-win’ China-led trade deal)

“The brilliance of Asia, something that has been lost for so long but goes way back, is being tapped now in a way that is making the world a better place,“ Sheeran said.

China’s unprecedented rise has lifted millions out of poverty, but history shows us that that when a new power challenges an old one, it usually ends in war. (READ: US-China rivalry on backdrop of Asia summits)

Graham Allison, a Harvard professor, saw that in the past 500 years, there have been 16 instances of a new power challenging an old power and 12 have ended in war which has resulted in millions of lives lost.

This potential for conflict is something that Sheeran thinks the world has to take seriously, and she believes that the US should step back into its leadership role. (READ: Obama to TPP members: Ratify deal soon

America is at its best when it works with other countries to help them achieve their dreams,” she said, noting that the Asia Society was founded on that principle.  

There’s a lot of inherent wisdom in China, she said, and it is not out of our grasp to help create a destiny where China’s rise does not lead to global conflict and instead leads to regional prosperity for all in a peaceful manner. (READ: APEC’s final day sidetracked by sea dispute)

“The opportunities are enormous but so are the dangers and it requires leadership,” she said, “and this is where even young people, even with all their brilliance with technology, [they] really need our leaders to step up to the plate.” –

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