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Uncertainty and change

“Navigating through Uncertainties” was the theme chosen for the daylong panel discussion for the benefit of the international media invited to observe the Nestlé and Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award last week.

But, said the panel moderator, Nestlé chair Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, since the theme’s inception a few months ago, “the uncertainties have turned into a crisis.” In Europe and elsewhere in the world, problems such as an economic downturn, massive immigration from the Middle East and Africa that has in turn triggered renewed and fervid nationalism and protectionist policies, and environmental challenges, portend a gathering storm.

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Indeed, said former United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, “the world is changing, and changing very fast.” In many parts of the world, economic hardship and political and religious conflicts pose “serious problems for leadership.” A diplomat before his term as the world’s prime mediator between and among the world’s powers, Annan preached a gospel of compromise and common agreement. On the problem of migration, for instance, he cited the need “to manage the interests of both the countries of origin and the migrants’ destination.”

Later in the discussion, Annan extended his call for the need for compromise especially in democracies, where the usual view and practice in elections have been “winner takes all.” But even after the votes have been counted, he cautioned, there is still a need “to provide legitimacy to the winners, and security to the losers.”

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If one word can suffice to sum up Annan’s gospel, it is “balance.” This is also a search that occupies Ernesto Zedillo, former president of Mexico, an economist and now director of the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization. “It has not been a good year overall” for his home region, Zedillo acknowledged. Economies have been undergoing some battering, and while poverty-fighting programs like conditional cash transfers seek to soften the blows on the poor, “economic mismanagement” has so far been characteristic of many governments’ performance.

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“Finding equilibrium” is likewise a mantra preached by Patrick Aebischer, president of the cutting-edge Polytechnic University of Lausanne that leads the way in research and application of technology.

“We are in the middle of a moral and innovation crisis,” Aebischer declared, observing that “today’s generation [of young adults] is much less optimistic than their parents’ generation.”

One problem, he pointed out, is that “science has been outracing development,” with politicians lagging in recognizing and adopting science and technology in service of their constituents. Take “gene editing,” for instance. The ability to “modify the genome of crops, animals and humans” holds out much promise in terms of boosting agricultural production and even human performance (think developing “infrared vision” in retinas of soldiers, for instance). But, he acknowledges, the “ethical issues” are frightening, with innovation becoming ever more “easy, cheap and accessible,” with little time between “discovery, impact and public acceptance” to fully measure every innovation’s eventual and final cost.

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Indeed, said Beatrice Weder di Mauro, a professor of economic policy now based in Singapore, there is a need “to tackle technical issues early enough because things are moving very fast.”

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With the world now entering what she called “the golden age of globalization,” she pointed out the need for a set of common rules of engagement among nations. Di Mauro cited the example of Singapore, where “ethnic communities have come together, integrating, with everyone benefiting.”

The issue at the moment was the massive rally organized by Turkish President Erdogan who had just faced down an attempted coup.

Reflecting on his experiences with the Turkish leader, Annan said Erdogan “started out very well as a leader” who had proven very useful as a conegotiator. But today, Annan added, the Turkish president has been “focused on his survival” and maintaining his power. Outsiders, warned the former UN head, have to “tread very carefully” in their dealings with him.

Zedillo, however, cautioned that “aggression is not a solution” to the sense of discomfort that the rest of the world may be developing toward Turkey. “Engagement is still needed,” he said.

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Later that day, the discussions on coping in a world of future challenges centered on Nestlé, with CEO Paul Bulcke mediating the exchange.

Executives in charge of different areas of the globe took part in the discussion: Luis Cantarell of Europe, Middle East and North Africa; Laurent Freixe of the Americas; and Wan Ling Martello, of Asia, Oceania and Africa.

Martello, who is of Chinese descent, was born and raised in the Philippines (she graduated from the University of the Philippines), but who has spent much of her career in the United States, looked back on a case in India some years back. At the time, Nestlé faced a consumer storm when the Indian food safety agency judged its Maggi Noodles “unsafe and dangerous.” Even as the case was undergoing litigation and testing, Martello said, the company voluntarily recalled more than 200 tons of the noodles from market shelves. Even so, banking on the “nostalgia” factor that over 30 years’ presence in the market created, it launched a campaign targeted at consumers of all ages who expressed a longing for the foods and things of childhood without mentioning Maggi or Nestlé at all.

And so, said Martello, when the case was finally decided in its favor, Maggi was able to reenter the market and make inroads on sales despite the controversy. This, it was pointed out, was one way to get one step ahead of unexpected change.

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TAGS: change, Nestlé, Salzburg Festival, uncertainty
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