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An Introduction to The World Economic Forum in Davos

An Introduction to The World Economic Forum in Davos

It’s January and it’s time for business and political leaders to converge yet again on the Swiss ski resort of Davos for The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) main annual event.

So what is Davos all about and when did this event start?

It was created in 1971 by German business professor Klaus Schwab to discuss the issues of the day and, initially, introduce European business leaders to US management practices. There was concern at the time that the New World was racing ahead in terms of business growth with The Old Continent being left behind. Such was the success, Schwab broadened the breadth and participation of the meeting setting up the European Management Forum as an annual event. It changed its name in 1987 to The World Economic Forum (WEF) to - according to their website –‘reflect its expanding scope and transformation from a European to truly global organization’.

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Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman, WEF

Although the WEF is keen to point out the diversity of its attendees it appears they still have a long way to go in balancing the numbers and moving away from an ongoing criticism that it is an event for powerful white males. This is illustrated in a recently published info graphic on the BBC website called Davos: A Portrait of Power.

From it we see that Davos attracts around 2500 delegates of whom nearly 50% are North American, British and Swiss with the next 10% being made up of Germany, India and France. There are then a large number of other countries that individually make up 1% or 2% including Australia, China and Mexico. Out of that 2500 women only make up 425 of that number and technology pioneers, religious leaders, social entrepreneurs and cultural leaders making up a total of around 90 people. Overall this represents a small number with delegate numbers still leaning very heavily to business and politics.

In 2004 Samuel Hartington coined the term ‘Davos Man’ to fiercely criticize members of the global elite who ‘have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations’. However, the Washington Post, in their article the Five Myths of Davos, argue that the term feels outdated with speakers critical of the free-market now given a platform along with Indian and Chinese delegates attending ‘where the state plays a more dominant role in economic affairs’.

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Anti-Wef Demo Davos 2009. JUSO Schweiz (Flickr)

Topics for discussion are weighty and prodigious: “Engineering a Cooler Planet" and "Constructing the Ephemeral: Light in the Public Realm" with this year’s theme being: The New Global Context (2015. For 2016 the focus is on Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution). Like any other industry event, keynote speakers will take to the stage to discuss some area of the overall theme, or challenge it, along with discussion afterwards. But to most it’s what happens in the corridors, over coffee or in the sauna that most speculate on. At its worst it could be an event where deals are done very much in the vein of Hartington’s Davos Man; the fact it is heavily guarded and closed to the public only fuels this idea. At best it could be what it sets out to be, committed to ’improving the state of the world’ in an informal environment that fosters discussion. But if this is the case commentators still ask whether all this networking leads to positive demonstrative action. Bill Clinton argued no and in doing so set up his Clinton Global Initiative in opposition standing for more ‘innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges’.

So has Davos accomplished anything?

Dominic Waughray, head of public-private relationships at the WEF, writing in today’s Guardian believes so. He highlights two major initiatives: the Global Alliance for Vaccinations and Immunisation, launched at Davos in 2000, and the Global Fund, in 2002, to accelerate the end of Aids, tuberculosis and malaria. Since their respective launches Waughray states that they have ‘disbursed over $7bn to 70 countries to scale up vaccinations’ and ‘deployed about $23bn to support programmes in over 150 countries’ that ‘has become the main funding platform to fight these global diseases’.

Notable political accomplishments include Turkey and Greece avoiding war in 1988 due to discussions held at Davos and in 1992 saw South African president FW de Klerk, chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the recently freed Nelson Mandela appear together for the first time which became the catalyst, for most, of the end of apartheid.

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De Klerk & Mandela shake hands at the WEF meeting in 1992

So where does this leave Davos today?

Some commentators have suggested that the event has lost some of its allure with Clinton, as we’ve seen, setting up his own initiative to compensate (and arguably overtake) Davos’ shortcomings. Others too wonder if it is in fact simply a ‘work jolly’ where leaders do not come to discuss or network in any meaningful way but attend to simply have fun and catch up with some global pals. The numbers above, compiled by the BBC, also suggest their attempt at increasing diversity still has some way to go and as for the conspiracists, one suspects they will never be appeased as long as the messages continue to come from ‘the elite’. Whatever you think about Davos, it still remains a topic for discussion with all the major newspapers giving ample space to the event. With this much publicity - discussion both at the event and about the event itself, along with the intrigue Davos continues to muster, it brings to mind a quote by the British art critic and writer John Berger:

'Publicity is the life of this culture. Without publicity capitalism could not survive and at the same time publicity is its dream'.

Picture: The Davos Conference Centre courtesy of Wikipedia

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