To the Swiss, the village of Davos is generally well known for its great ski resorts and the unrivalled success of its ice hockey team. Once a year, however, this sleepy alpine locale plays host to a collection of the world’s elite, as well as a small army of journalists, when the World Economic Forum (WEF) holds its annual general meeting in January.
This year’s invitation-only event is to take place from January 23 to 27 and those lucky enough to attend will find a chance to hear the advice, concerns and opinions of heads of government, company chief executives, charity leaders and international celebrities. Unlike high-profile engagements between governments or companies, Davos is an informal meeting and participants are encouraged to freely discuss ideas and network with each other.
The WEF’s motto is “committed to improving the state of the world” and it is hoped that the attendees can find solutions to the collective problems faced by the world’s population.
With political and economic issues increasingly spilling across national borders, and stakeholders to any particular problem or opportunity scattered across the planet, this yearly meeting of the global elite will hope to reveal much needed solutions to a variety of issues.
When the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope declared that he was a “citizen of the world”, what he had in mind was probably not Davos Man, a term coined in 1977 by the late American political scientist Samuel Huntington to describe participants of the WEF’s annual meeting. While Diogenes lived in a jar, kept to himself, and was generally cynical about everything, the modern day Davos Man is an elite individual with grand ambitions, determined to solve the world’s problems through cooperation with his global colleagues.
Since Klaus Schwab’s founding of the WEF (originally known as the European Management Forum) in 1971, Davos Man can claim many successes from the countless forums, meetings and discussions. Some important achievements include the 1988 meeting between Greek and Turkish politicians that helped prevent war between the two nations, a personal rendezvous between Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, and a meeting between North American leaders during which Nafta was first proposed.
There have also been some controversial moments, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey storming off stage following a clash with Shimon Peres, President of Israel in 2009. Challenges abound this year as the eurozone is still in crisis, unrest continues to shake the Arab world, youth unemployment is persistent and, according to the World Meteorological Organisation, greenhouse gases reached their highest level ever in 2011.
The world’s elite will hope the networking and exchange of ideas bound to happen at this year’s meeting will result in solutions. While the participation of the big hitters is kept a secret until the last minute for security reasons, some are more likely to turn up than others. Bill Gates, for instance, has made 17 consecutive appearances, committing $750m at last year’s event to the fight against Aids.
Some high-ranking Chinese officials may also return after their absence from last year’s forum, when a clash with the Chinese New Year prevented them from attending. Many are disappointed Barack Obama seems less keen on Davos than Bill Clinton, the previous Democrat in the White House. The President is yet to attend the general meeting and has generally only sent minor representation.
While many specific items will be on the Davos agenda, one general theme will dominate: the need for international cooperation. At the 2012 Summit on the Global Agenda held in Dubai, widely seen as a warm up for Davos, participants were adamant about the need to work together.
Schwab said: “I appeal to the world’s leadership – particularly in those countries with new leaders in place or where the current leaders have been reconfirmed – to devote sufficient time and positive energy to look after our global issues and not just to be absorbed with internal problems. Let’s make 2013 a year of true global cooperation.”
The message wasn’t lost on others, with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown telling the audience in a discussion on Global Governance that, “the next time a financial crisis happens in the world… people will ask why did we not learn the lesson that there had to be greater international cooperation in dealing with these problems?”
Director-General at the World Trade Organisation Pascal Lamy said: “there is a grave risk… that international cooperation [and] globalisation is seen more and more as a problem… and not as a potential and a possibility,” adding that such a situation could lead to a “dark age”.
Lamy also stressed that, for international cooperation to work, the elites who would soon gather at Davos would have to frame the benefits of global solutions in a way acceptable to the peoples whom they will affect. He said: “In the end, the good international solution must be seen as a national interest… because then we will see the parliaments agreeing with certain international agreements, that public opinion would agree [with] and editorial writers would agree [with].”
According to the official programme, this year’s agenda focuses on “resilient dynamism”, which refers to the ability of organisations to “demonstrate strategic agility and to possess risk resilience”. But due to past tradition and the general informality of Davos, participants are likely to veer off course and discuss their own agendas among themselves, with Schwab attempting to tie all the loose ends together in a neat intellectual package throughout.
The WEF released its Global Agenda Survey in November, which provides some background to what topics the attendees will probably want to discuss with each other.
When the respondents were asked to identify the most important global trends in the next 12-18 months, the top two responses were the eurozone stumbling under pressure and the unstable global economic outlook with 14 and 12 percent respectively. Rounding out the top five were the digital and communications revolution, the scarcity of resources, and global power shifts.
The results of the Global Agenda Survey show that, even though the eurozone is not on the brink of collapse as many feared a year ago, the issue of European stability still of the utmost importance to global policy makers. At last year’s meeting of the WEF, Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde warned that the instability was “not just a eurozone crisis; it’s a crisis that could have… spill-over effects around the world.
“What I have seen and what the IMF has seen in numbers and forecasts is that no country is immune and everybody has an interest in making sure that this crisis is resolved adequately.” President of Mexico Felipe Calderón was even more frank about the dangers. He said: “We have a time bomb. The bomb is in Europe. And we are working together to de-activate it, before it explodes over all of us.”
But not all will be itching to discuss Europe’s malaise above all else. For instance, survey respondents aged 70-79 seemed more concerned about a lack of global leadership and coordination on the world stage. Those in the Middle East and North Africa ranked the digital and communications revolution top of their list: a rather pertinent issue in a part of the world rocked by social network-fuelled revolution and discontent. Business leaders and chief executives are also likely to welcome the chances to network and form new partnerships provided during this alpine getaway.
While the WEF’s annual general meeting hosts some of the world’s richest and most influential elites, the organisers are also keen to prevent it from turning into an old boys club. Stressing the importance of networks at the Summit on the Global Agenda, Schwab praised what he called the WEF’s “multi-stakeholder concept” for international cooperation.
Schwab was quick to add, however, that the traditional three pillars of the concept – governance, business and civil society – would have to be expanded to ensure the best possible understanding of and solutions to global problems. He suggested it was important to listen to what he described as four new voices: truth (academia and science), the good (ethics and morality), young people and women.
His last suggestion was met with particular applause from an audience eager to have Davos Woman working alongside Davos Man. The topic had already been an issue in 2012, when Talan Al Zain, CEO of Bahrain Mumtalakat Holding Company, said: “I truly believe that if I’m sitting around a table with my executives, and they’re all male… if I bring a female to the table… I know that person will improve the performance of the whole team.”
With regards to young people, the WEF invited a range of youth voices to take part in the discussions at Davos 2012. Referred to as ‘Global Shapers’, the participants were all under 30. A diverse set of individuals were invited, including 20 CEOs, a professor of nanotechnology at the University of Zurich, a 24-year-old mayor from the Philippines and the leader of the 2011 Chilean student protests.
Barack Obama seems to be less keen on Davos than Bill Clinton
Highlighting the importance of the younger generation in understanding and interacting with the modern and future social, cultural and business spheres, Schwab described the participants as “digital natives who grew up with the internet”. He said: “they have vision, think laterally, act quickly and make connections across networks in order to successfully solve problems. This community is of vital importance and we see tremendous opportunities for Shapers and today’s leaders to learn from one another.”
The global shapers seemed to think so too and were happy to attend. Co-founder of Indian advisory firm Intellecap, Manju George said: “The aspirations of my generation are higher than ever before: for ourselves, our countries and the world. It’s vital that we include our voice in any conversation shaping our tomorrow.”
Last year’s Davos summit also saw its tenth annual Open Forum, intended to bring real people into the mix of billionaires and politicians. No registration was required and anyone was welcome to attend, allowing members of the public and the global Occupy movement to butt heads on a variety of issues with representativs of the global elite.
Last year’s Davos was not just to be a collection of “fat cats in the snow,” as U2 front man Bono once called it. 2012’s participants in the Open Forum included such big names as Ed Miliband, leader of the UK Labour Party, Jean-Claude Trichet, former President of the European Central Bank, and Ehud Barak, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence of Israel.
After all is said and done, Davos 2013 will be judged on what its participants have managed to conjure up. Critics will argue that many of the problems of last year are still there today, heading into the summit. Last year’s participants were already heavily engaged in finding ways to fix the eurozone, yet it continues to be the top concern.
But when a collection of the world’s most powerful and influential people comes together, disagreements are always possible and often likely. UK Prime Minister David Cameron ruffled a few feathers in 2012 when he labelled plans for a European financial transaction tax as “madness,” much to the disapproval of other European leaders.
Davos Man is an elite individual with grand ambitions
Opinions about what to do with regards to greenhouse gases or how to tackle the current crisis in Syria are also bound to diverge when there are so many stakeholders, each with their own background and interests.
Still, the best way to come to an agreement or even just to agree to disagree respectfully is to discuss the issues at hand. For this, there is probably no place in the world better than the WEF’s annual meeting at Davos. Cooperation will be the key and one can only hope that all the discussions, meetings and networking in the fresh alpine air will turn out more than a few solutions.