The World Economic Forum bills itself as something special; originally intended as a bridge between political and business decision-making, this annual event held in the Swiss ski resort of Davos wants nothing less than to change the world. Report by Cillian Donnelly
Describing itself as “an international organisation committed to improving the state of the world”, the World Economic Forum (WEF) boasts some heavy hitters from among its attendees: political bigwigs, business innovators and captains of industry, civic leaders and, occasionally, Bono. It certainly aims to be broadly inclusive, and its mission statement is bold. “By engaging business, political, academic and other levels of society,” it says it can “shape global, regional and industry agendas”. Which is undoubtedly setting the bar high, and when it meets between 25-29 January, 2012, its theme is no less than ‘The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models’.
Of course, there are those who cast a somewhat cynical eye on the proceedings. The WEF has been dismissed as a capitalist love-in, little more than a junket and, with reference to the ultra-secretive organisation beloved of conspiracy theorists everywhere, a bit Bilderberg-light. There may or may not be elements of truth in these assertions, but the simple fact is that people queue up to take part. It is certainly the place to be seen, or, like Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk in 1992, use the event to make a grand political statement.
Voguishly dubbed ‘Davos Man’ by American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who saw the kind of person who frequented the five-day get-together as the type to care less about national borders, and instead put their belief in the eroding power of globalisation, it is sometimes hard to escape the conclusion that Davos exists solely to pander to the global fantasies of white, male elites.
Such people will, naturally, swear that they take part only to do their bit in meeting the challenges of global improvement, rather than for the clean air, picturesque mountain scenery and worldfamous ski slopes. Davos is also, by way of coincidence, a top Alpine resort – see our feature on page 70. Located in the Swiss Alps, the town is nestled in one of Switzerland’s biggest and best ski areas; something that British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, availed of in 2011, apparently in preparation for a major speech he was due to deliver later that day.
In addition to accusations of encouraging awayday antics, latterly the Forum has also been criticised for becoming something of a marketplace for the latest electronic gadgets: hand-held devices and phones of all kinds are routinely road-tested at the event by their parent companies, who help make up the 1,000 or so that fund the World Economic Forum. Recently, as if to perpetuate the gadget-boy stereotype, technology hook-ups with new media, such as YouTube and Facebook have helped to broadcast the Forum’s message.
“GOOD INITIATIVES HAVE CERTAINLY COME OUT OF DAVOS IN THE PAST”
But even dispensing with the cynicism, it is hard to deny that the Forum is now a somewhat one-sided affair, a showcase for big egos and devoid of diversity. Good initiatives have certainly come out of Davos in the past, such as the Global Health Initiative, announced by Kofi Annan in 2002, but increasingly its pronouncements seem somehow less vital. In January, as the world’s eyes turn once again to Davos, and looking through all the gloss, the question is, can all the hard work of global rescue really be achieved – or is the pull of some of the resort’s other attractions too much of a distraction?