Page last updated at 05:35 UTC, Tuesday, 10 April 2012 PH
A week before world leaders met in the last days of January in Davos, Switzerland, I was in the beautiful and historical city of Antigua in Guatemala, meeting a much smaller group of influential thinkers and policy makers from different parts of the world. Last January 19 to 21, the Antigua Forum was held for the first time, convoking some 30 individuals interested in maximizing the freedom of individual economic initiative in all important sectors of economic life. Experiences from about 20 countries coming from all the continents of the world were shared in the most active and participative manner about the freedom of enterprise in such areas as education, health, finance, telecom, ports, pensions, property titles, labor, family policies, crime legislation, autonomous development zones, domestic and international trade. There were Deputy Prime Ministers, past and present; top officials of nongovernmental organizations involved in microcredit and other services addressed to the poorest of the poor; heads of think tanks; university professors; members of parliament; ministers of finance, the economy, defense, justice, and infrastructure; and a Nobel laureate in economics, Dr. Vernon Smith, who is a pioneer in experimental economics.
The Antigua Forum is a project undertaken by the Universidad Francisco Marroquin located in the former capital of Guatemala, Antigua, in collaboration with John Templeton Foundation and Earhart Foundation. The objective of this annual forum is to create a small gathering of reformers from around the world who are committed to policies based on classical liberal principles. As stated in the invitation letter of Giancarlo Ibarquen, President of the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, "The idea is to create a unique learning environment for these reformers, with the goal of improving the chances of success for market-liberal policies that advance individual liberty and human well-being. We will examine specific questions, such as why certain reforms worked and others failed, what we can learn from both types of experiences, what conditions best facilitate reform, how objections and obstacles were overcome, and much more."
Having attended numerous international conferences of policy makers, reformers and academics in the past, I can truly say that the Antigua Forum exceeded my highest expectations. From the very first night of the conference, maximum effectiveness of the two-day workshop was guaranteed by the most creative approach followed by the facilitators of getting each participant thoroughly acquainted with the backgrounds, experiences, expectations and possible contributions of all the other participants. Each participant was able to hear from everyone of the other participants address these three questions: 1) what have I done in the areas of policy reforms?; 2) what do I expect to get out of this Forum?; and 3) what can I contribute to it? The participants were then immediately distributed to small working groups addressing very practical questions of policy reforms. There were no speeches nor academic papers presented. Maximum use was made of the "post it" technology, with an ample supply of blackboards and post-it sheets of paper on which the participants freely scribbled questions, answers, references, experiences, and any relevant information that could enlighten the workshop discussions. Then there were plenary sessions in which participants in the various workshops reported some of the main findings and suggestions for the benefit of every one. There were, of course, clashes of opinions but each one was focused on the main objective of the forum, which was to come out with practical solutions to the problem of maximizing personal freedom and responsibility in economic life.
Participants were very conscious of the bad name that markets have acquired as a result of the ongoing Great Recession. The discussions, however, did not get polarized in the way the last Davos Forum got polarized. As reported in the International Herald Tribune (January 28-29, 2012), the benefits of globalization and trade were questioned by some participants in the Davos Forum: "...there was a wider recognition that the traditional Davos focus on the benefits of globalisation and trade had a social cost. While it has been good for highly educated and mobile executives, many of whom flock to the forum, the west's unskilled workers have suffered. The flip side of people enjoying cheaper goods at home is loss of jobs at home. The flipside of technology and productivity is tremendous job churn and insecurity (quotation from Lord Mandelson)." There were the usual references to the tension between maximizing value for the share holders and treating corporate social responsibility as core to the very business of every enterprise. In fact, the ghost of Milton Friedman continued to hover over the Davos Forum when a participant, Mr. Banerji, remarked: "Generally companies are poor instruments of social policy and should stay away from that. Good companies raise capital from markets, allocate it to projects and make profits along the way. If they did that well, there would be no problems."