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Passionate Debate at the World Economic Forum

By Michael Purdy

For a few years at least, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has Dean Alfred Sommer hooked.

The forum, held annually, is funded by a partnership of some the world’s largest corporations and draws heavy hitters ranging from Microsoft chairman Bill Gates to former president Bill Clinton. It includes both closed meetings where company executives discuss profits, trade, and other bottom-line issues, and more open meetings where international experts and leaders discuss how they can build a better world by improving public health, decreasing poverty, reducing pollution, and working together on a range of other concerns.

Sommer attended his first meeting at the end of January in Davos, Switzerland, and came home as chair of the health committee of the Global Governance Initiative. The initiative assesses progress toward goals agreed to by 189 countries in a United Nations accord known as the Millennial Declaration.

“The Millennial Declaration tries to move the world forward on a wide range of important societal issues by the year 2015,” explains Sommer, MD, MHS ’73. “There are things like reducing poverty by half; stemming and reversing the epidemics of HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis; and increasing gender equity. We’ve got all these goals that countries have agreed to; but forum leaders are concerned that with no one tracking efforts and investments, it will prove [to be] just so much rhetoric.”

The Expert Group on Health, which Sommer chairs, will meet twice per year at the School to prepare its report. As a committee chair, Sommer will also participate in the Initiative’s overall steering committee, which will meet annually at the WEF to produce a report on progress toward meeting the Millennial goals.

The dean also agreed to become a member of the advisory board for a new health research support program, the Global Challenges in Health Program, announced at the WEF by Bill Gates. Launched with a $200 million grant from Gates, the initiative will work “to attract bright young researchers into studying the diseases that are the biggest causes of suffering and death in the developing world,” says Sommer.

In addition to his formal commitments, Sommer had many opportunities to make connections for potential new projects with a variety of partners, including Strobe Talbott, president of the Brookings Institution (and former deputy secretary of state). “We’re reviewing collaborative opportunities,” Sommer says. “And this is just one of many potential initiatives that came out of sitting in on discussions, having lunch, or even sitting in the airport lounge before flying back... I must have passed out 250 fact cards about the School,” says Sommer, adding that he’d like to get School faculty involved in helping to “drive the agenda on what will be discussed” at future meetings of the Forum.

Sommer returned from Davos inspired by the debates that unfolded. “There are sessions that begin over breakfast at 7:30 in the morning and run through ‘nightcaps’ at 1:30 a.m.,” he says, with an enthusiastic laugh. “It is a tremendous learning experience... to watch really smart people, often in important policy-making roles, actively disagree with one another in a very civilized manner.”