Ebola, oil and climate change on the agenda for WEF 2015

In January, thousands of the world’s most powerful figures will gather in the picturesque resort of Davos to discuss the most pressing global issues of the hour. Lizzie Meager looks at what can be expected from 2015’s summit

Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo, at last year’s WEF. She will join the likes of Christine Lagarde and David Cameron at this year's summit

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 initial 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, glamourised by high-profile celebrities’ involvement in charity and humanitarian work. If Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates et al 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.

Rejection and isolation
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 recognised concept synonymous with those in attendance. A member of the global elite with little regard for those he allegedly represents, Davos Man views national governments as “residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”. But that criticism is somewhat unfair when one considers the major political and social developments that have emerged from the idyllic resort over the years.


Attendees of the WEF in 1971


Attendees of the WEF in 2014


Minimum price of a WEF invitation, 2014

Aside from acting as host to the most important economic, political and social decision-makers in the world, Davos has plenty more to offer its attendees: a world-class winter sports resort and an endless list of private parties organised by major global corporations. These are where the secondary motive for attending Davos can be put into practice: networking. Failing to receive an invitation to one of these events (the Google party is reportedly the most highly coveted) is said to instil a sense of rejection in even the hardiest attendee. In fact, the forum is reminiscent of a high school, 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 the infamous sweeping up-down look is standard Davos protocol.

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,” says Mark Spelman, Managing Director of Accenture Strategy. “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.”

Reshaping the world
Last year’s theme was ‘reshaping 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”. 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.

WEF by continent

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. Last year’s conference, however, was 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 tensions between China and Japan were also at the forefront of discussion, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe chillingly comparing the relationship between the two to that of Britain and Germany in the lead-up to the First World War.

Davos 2015
This year’s theme (‘the new global context’) 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: oil, nuclear weapons and climate change. 2014 was plagued by conflict and the global threat this discord poses will be discussed at length, including the growing presence of Iraqi jihadists Islamic State and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. Also likely to be touched upon are Russia and Ukraine, who remain at loggerheads with each other, and Nigerian militant Islamist group Boko Haram.

WEF by profession

According to an executive summary posted by the WEF, key areas of focus will be 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. Other 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.

Whatever your view on 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 that will emerge from such an occasion.