It’s the event of the year: from January 21 to 24, over 2,500 of the world’s most influential figures from business, politics, academia and the arts will gather in the mile-high alpine resort of Davos to address the world’s most pressing concerns in a variety of workshops, panels and conferences.
Founded in 1971 by professor and economist Klaus Schwab, the concept for the World Economic Forum (WEF) was to bring together global leaders to discuss how the state of the world could be improved upon. In its 44 years, almost everything about the conference has grown, including the controversy surrounding it. Philanthropy has been on the rise for some time now, glamorised somewhat by high-profile celebrities’ involvement in charity and humanitarian work in recent decades. If Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates have taught us anything, it’s that helping others is in, and the list of those looking to get a finger in the WEF pie is ever-growing. The total number of attendees, once a humble 444, stood at 2,633 in 2014.
However, anti-globalisation protestors continue to crash the party every year, setting up camp in sub-zero temperatures for the duration of the conference. The idea that the problems of 99 percent of the world can be suitably discussed and solved by the wealthiest, most powerful one percent is a widely criticised model. The term ‘Davos Man’, first coined by political scientist Samuel P Huntington, is now a universally recognised concept synonymous with those in attendance.
How much did it cost to attend Davos?
(Excluding the $30,000 ticket cost per person)
Annual membership with the WEF
Industry associate with the WEF
Industry partnership with the WEF
Strategic partnership with the WEF
A member of the global elite with little regard for those he allegedly represents, the Davos Man views national governments as “residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”. This criticism is somewhat unfair when considering the major political and social developments to have emerged from the idyllic resort over the years.
On the list
Aside from acting as host to the most important economic, political and social decision-making in the world, Davos has plenty more to offer its attendees. The world-class winter sports resort and an endless list of private parties organised by major global corporations bring the secondary motive for attending Davos – networking – into focus. Failing to receive an invitation to one of these events – the Google party is said to be highly coveted – instils a sense of rejection in even the hardiest attendee.
In fact, the forum is reminiscent of a high school setting, down to a colour-coded lanyard system denoting the importance, and therefore influence, of every guest. Unofficial cliques are established early on, conversations are often halted prematurely when a higher ranked individual enters the room and greeting other attendees with a sweeping up-down look is standard Davos protocol.
The forum’s annual meeting has long been the site of major global social and political developments – for example, when Greece and Turkey agreed to turn back from the brink of war by signing the Davos Declaration in 1988. Or, in 2005, when the forum served as a platform for the launch of then-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s G8 policy on addressing climate change and poverty in Africa.
The hundreds of workshops, panels and discussions on offer over the course of the week range from the groundbreaking – ‘A day in the life of a refugee: exploring solutions for Syria’ (2014) to the somewhat trivial – ‘All you ever wanted to know about relationships, but were afraid to ask’ (2006). The latter was in fact the most popular session of the whole week that year.
This year, an invitation carries a minimum $71,000 price tag, but even that won’t deter the fat cats from playing in the snow, as Bono famously described the event back in 2006. “From a very corporate point of view, we would have at Davos something like 70 executives and C-level players from different companies. That’s almost impossible to replicate anywhere else in that period of time. So there’s real value for a corporation like ours to have that number of meetings,” Mark Spelman, Managing Director at Accenture Strategy, told World Finance.
Last year’s theme was ‘The reshaping of the world: the consequences for society, politics and business’, which Founder Schwab claimed “speaks to the need for leaders to fundamentally reassess how the tectonic plates of the world are shifting against each other, so they can predict and respond more effectively to the earthquakes that we know are coming”.
The 2014 guest list featured 288 government officials, 48 representatives from international organisations, 196 academics and 2,101 people from the public sector, of which 734 hold the job title ‘chief executive’. Disappointingly, just 16 percent of all 2,633 in attendance last year were women, down from 17 percent in 2013. Notable attendees included Hassan Rouhani, the first Iranian president at the forum in 10 years, Marissa Mayer and Christine Lagarde, plus regulars David Cameron, Bill Gates and Bono.
There was a heavy focus on health and wellbeing, which is expected to grow with each year, and many mindfulness meditation sessions featured on the programme, including one hosted by actress Goldie Hawn. However the conference was last year dominated by the technology sector, with many sessions spent discussing whether advances in technology would lead to a loss of jobs. Google’s Chief Executive Eric Schmidt surprised the audience by agreeing that while technological advancements are a positive development on a larger scale, they will ultimately result in job cuts. Growing tensios between China and Japan were also at the forefront of discussions, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe chillingly comparing the relationship between the two to that of Britain and Germany in the lead-up to WWI.
Every year, speakers from politics and business take to the Davos stage to share their wisdom. In a speech on increasing UK exports and attracting inward investment, UK Prime Minister David Cameron celebrated both the globalisation so many have come to negatively associate with the forum, and the opportunities of shale gas. “Just look at what shale gas has done for America – for American firms and American jobs. It has reduced industrial gas prices in America to about one quarter of those in Europe, and it’s set to create a million more manufacturing jobs as firms build new factories,” he told the audience. “Act now to seize the opportunities of re-shoring.”
Davos 2015: The new global context
This January will be no different. More than 2,500 invitations to the resort will be extended to the global elite: key world leaders, intellectuals and heads of the world’s most successful businesses and international organisations. This year’s theme aims to “reflect the period of profound political, economic, social and technological change that the world has entered, which has the potential to end the era of economic integration and international partnership that began in 1989”, according to the WEF.
Ebola is likely to take centre stage at many sessions, along with the usual topics: oil, nuclear weapons and climate change. Last year was plagued by conflict and the global threat this discord poses will be discussed at length, such as the growing presence of Iraqi jihadists Isis and the Israeli-Palestinian war in Gaza. Also likely to be touched upon is Russia and Ukraine, who remain at loggerheads with each other, and Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram, to name but a few.
According to an executive summary posted by the WEF, key areas of focus will be addressing deepening geopolitical fault-lines, the normalisation of monetary policy through the reduction of quantitative easing and a rise in interest rates, and the continuing erosion of trust in public and private sector institutions.
Also on the list is “the ecological, societal and business repercussions of unabated climate change, youth unemployment and income inequality”, and the breadth and velocity of scientific and technological advances – namely the juxtaposition of opinions that they are both inspiring and ominous.
Final areas of focus mentioned are “the generational shift from societies sharing common values to those that are primarily interest-driven and the related rise of sectarianism, populism, nationalism and statism”, and the difficulty faced in improving governance of “critical global commons” –natural resources and cyberspace in particular.
An event of this calibre is always going to draw criticism, but one of the main issues is the secrecy of the whole affair. Many argue that if the most pressing global issues which concern everyone in the world are being addressed and discussed, then these discussions should at the very least be shared with the people they are affecting. This year, that fact has evidently been kept in mind – a brief summary of the 2015 agenda on the WEF’s website reads: “This programme will be more open to the public than ever before, with over 20 televised sessions and an expanded multilingual webcast capability covering 60 sessions.”
Whatever your view on the Davos Man, 2,500 of the world’s most powerful people all in one place simply cannot be ignored. The power they pose as a group is unfathomable, and many will eagerly anticipate the ideas, solutions and concepts to emerge from such an occasion.
History of the World Economic Forum
Founded by a group of European business leaders held in Davos, Switzerland
The second annual meeting drew 300 participants and was a modest event
The Forum expands its series of round table discussions to seven events
The Forum welcomed its first delegation from a non-European country – Mexico
A membership system is introduced, allowing 1,000 of the leading global companies to join
The Forum’s well known index of competitiveness was introduced
The US participated regularly at Davos after Regan sent a live message to the event
The Davos Declaration was signed by Greece and Turkey, turning them away from war
Its 1,000th member was welcomed, followed by a cap on membership to 1,000
The annual meeting launched the G8 agenda on global climate change and poverty
An online community called WELCOM was formed for business and government use
Henry Kissinger spoke out on the US and Russia to cooperate on ending the crisis in Syria