What’s in store for WEF’s Annual Meeting 2014?

Murray Stassen looks ahead to the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2014, held in Davos, Switzerland

The World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting, held in Davos each year, opens conversation about political, economic, technological and environmental issues

Lagging inequality

The Global Gender Gap Report (GGGR) ranks 136 nations based on their level of gender equality. Some developed nations lag behind their developing colleagues – a fact that will again be a topic of discussion at Davos.

GDP per capita:
GGGR ranking: 16th

South Africa
GDP per capita
GGGR ranking: 17th

GDP per capita
GGGR ranking: 23rd

GDP per capita
GGGR ranking: 24th

From January 22 2014, Davos-Klosters will play host to the 44th Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Over 2,500 attendees will congregate in the picturesque alpine municipality to discuss and debate global political, economic, technological and environmental issues. Political scientist Samuel Huntington coined the term ‘Davos Man’ to describe those who are not limited by nationality or national boundaries. He said they “see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations”. The Davos Men (and Women) will meet on neutral ground, high up in the Swiss Alps, to participate in workshops, panels and discussions concerning the world below them.

For over four decades, various politicians, academics, business leaders, members of civil society and the press have attended the event. The WEF was founded 43 years ago as a non-profit organisation by University of Geneva business professor Klaus Schwab. The inaugural meeting in Davos saw around 400 European business executives come together to discuss matters of economic concern. “When we started,” said Schwab, in an interview with the Financial Times in 2008, “it was a small, family affair, with not more than 400 people, focused mainly on management issues.” Originally named the ‘European Management Forum’, the name was changed to the World Economic Forum to reflect the organisation’s varied international objectives.

Davos isn’t just a gathering of “fat cats in the snow,” as Bono famously called it; the annual WEF meeting is a platform for ideas, experience and insight to be exchanged. “I always insist the Forum is not a decision-making body,” said Schwab. “The WEF is a body that enlightens people, that helps them to make better-informed decisions. The rest is up to them. The big global challenges cannot be met by governments, businesses or civil society alone. A cooperative platform, a global forum is needed which unites societal forces to improve, as our mission states, the state of the world.”

Charlize Theron accepted an award at the WEF's 2013 Annual Meeting for her humanitarian work
Charlize Theron accepted an award at the WEF’s 2013 Annual Meeting for her humanitarian work

Davos 2013
The theme for the last meeting was “Resilient Dynamism”. Schwab wanted to focus on progress: “I am convinced that, instead of being mired in pessimism and burnt out by crisis management, we have to look at the future in a much more positive, much more constructive, or in other words a much more dynamic, manner. At the same time, the complexity, interconnectivity and velocity of the global system represents ever-increasing systemic risks, combining a dynamic, upbeat approach, bold vision and even bolder action with the necessary measures to strengthen risk resilience is critical for a successful future, thus our theme: Resilient Dynamism.”

The 2013 meeting saw 50 heads of state, 500 members of the press and more than 1,500 business leaders from the Forum’s 1,000 partner and member companies in attendance. Some of the primary issues were published in the 2012 Global Risks Report in the weeks preceding the event. Challenges described in the report included the increasing gap between rich and poor or “income disparity”: economic inequality measured by the Gini coefficient. Rising government debt was also on the agenda in the midst of the eurozone crisis. Other issues outlined included growing unemployment and the wider recovery from the global economic downturn, as well as rising carbon emissions.

…they see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations

Each year at Davos, speakers from business, politics and civil society take to the stage to share their thoughts with the audience, giving reporters a few lines of quotable quips and candour. Speaking at the Global Education Imperative, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of education: “As a boy, I studied in the dirt. There was no classroom. Education made me what I am: it made my dream come true… I shared my message with refugee children: don’t lose hope, study hard. I did it, you can do it too.”

In his Special Address, UK Prime Minister David Cameron said: “When you have a single currency, you move inexorably towards a banking union and forms of fiscal union, and that has huge implications for countries like the UK who are not in the euro and are frankly never likely to join.”

Davos often attracts mainstream media attention due to the attendance of high-profile celebrities. In 2013, Charlize Theron accepted an award at the opening Crystal Awards ceremony for her humanitarian work. She told the audience: “I feel like I’m getting smarter just by osmosis.” Adrian Monck interviewed the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, in a one-on-one session about the problems with social networking. “A hacker to me is someone creative who does wonderful things,” said Berners-Lee.

The WEF’s meetings attract notable figures from a variety of fields, such as technology entrepreneur Bill Gates
The WEF’s meetings attract notable figures from a variety of fields, such as technology entrepreneur Bill Gates

Dialogue at Davos 2014
The 2014 WEF meeting will attempt “to develop and shape global, regional and industry agendas”. The theme will be “The Reshaping of the World: Consequences for Society, Politics and Business”. The Forum describes the aims of the 2014 event as being to “develop insights, initiatives and actions necessary to respond to current and emerging global challenges”. The executive summary outlines key areas that will be focused on regarding global, regional, economic, industry and business, and the future.

Conflict and political unrest have been prevalent in the run-up to the 2014 meeting. In the wake of the Arab Spring, incessant unrest in North Africa and the Middle East continues to limit the potential for peace and economic prosperity in the region. The War in Syria has resulted in over two million refugees seeking safety in neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. These nations are beginning to struggle with the magnitude of the crisis. According to the UN, close to nine million Syrian people are in desperate need of foreign aid. These are but some of the challenges faced by political and business leaders in their pursuit of making the world a better place.

Dialogue at Davos is also likely to be shaped by global environmental, social and economic issues. Climate change in particular will be a top priority. Writing for the web site BusinessGreen, Dominic Waughray, Senior Director and Head of Environmental Initiatives at the WEF, stressed the importance of promoting dialogue about the changing climate: “While it is important to appreciate that the Forum does not itself form policy or reach decisions, and is instead a catalyst for ideas and solutions, it is dedicating an unprecedented number of sessions at the next Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters in early 2014 to climate change. The World Economic Forum could be the ideal place to bring together scientists, government leaders and private sector actors to better understand the problem and find ways to address it.”

Switzerland's Davos provides a scenic and inspiring backdrop for each annual meeting the WEF holds
Switzerland’s Davos provides a scenic and inspiring backdrop for each annual meeting the WEF holds

Trade and gender
Multilateral trade is also expected to be the subject of many conversations. Several global free trade agreements are currently being negotiated, notably the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the EU and the US, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership being discussed among Brunei, Chile, New Zealand and Singapore.

From those to whom much is given, much is expected

The post-2015 development agenda will also be near the top of the list as the eight UN Millennial Development goals come to an end in 2015. There have been several notable parliamentary elections in 2013 (for example in Iran, Italy and Australia) and, as the new members of government begin to implement their policies, business leaders and decision makers will want their voices to be heard as they begin to form new relationships with their foreign counterparts.

Following the release of the WEF Global Gender Gap Report 2013, the matter of gender equality is expected to be of utmost importance at Davos 2014. Introduced in 2006, The Global Gender Gap Report measures the progress of 136 countries in the last year by means of “economic, political, education and health based criteria”. The ranking system used in the report is “designed to create greater awareness among a global audience of the challenges posed by gender gaps and the opportunities created by reducing them”. Gender equality is a matter of great concern due to men dominating the political and economic landscape in most of the world.

Deborah Steinborn and Uwe Jean Heuser, the authors of Think Again! How the Economy is Becoming More Feminine, stressed the importance of greater female representation for the benefit of the wider economy: “It makes sense for companies to open their cultures to both genders. This is perhaps the last great economic adventure, and one which can be profitable for all.” Certain developed countries, such as the US and Australia, which rank 23rd and 24th respectively, are lagging behind developing nations such as Lesotho and South Africa, which sit at 16th and 17th.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk between events at the 2013 meeting
UK Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel talk between events at the 2013 meeting

Notable attendees
Assumptions about who might be at Davos are never wise as attendance cannot be guaranteed for the incredibly busy Davos Man. However, one attendee will certainly be Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, who has been appointed co-chair of the annual meeting. Last year, Dangote’s wealth was estimated by Forbes to be in the region of $16.1bn. A dedicated philanthropist and the founder of Dangote Group (West Africa’s largest publicly listed corporation), Dangote was also recently appointed to the United Nations Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), launched by Ban Ki-Moon.

Echoing the UN Secretary General’s advocacy for improving access to education, the GEFI aims to put every single child in school. Klaus Schwab wrote in his invitation letter to Dangote that his “participation as co-chair will contribute significantly to the substance and relevance of exchanges between global leaders from government, business, academia, civil society and the media at the forum”.

Despite the media attention Davos receives for the protests, exclusivity, lavish dinners, alleged million-dollar parties thrown by tech billionaires, and the speculation about the private words exchanged outside official sessions, there is possibly no better stage for the most influential men and women to meet and discuss how they might make the world a better place. When one is able to appreciate the wealth and influence of the participants as a force for positive change, Davos-Klosters can be seen as a platform for incredible political, social and economic progression.

As idealistic as this may seem, the young global leaders, social entrepreneurs, tech pioneers, media leaders, and spiritual and cultural leaders representing their countries, businesses and communities at Davos really do have the power to eradicate starvation, resolve conflict, educate every child and ensure that our earth is habitable for generations to come. Bill Gates, a humanitarian and regular Davos attendee, has told of a letter sent from his mother to Melinda Gates before their wedding. She wrote: “From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” As the WEF’s motto is “committed to improving the state of the world,” Davos Man and Woman may do well to consider Mrs Gates’s words as they arrive in Switzerland for their annual meeting.