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At any other time of the year, Davos is unremarkable other than being a popular ski resort high in the Swiss Alps.
But for one week in January, it becomes the focus of the world’s attention as the global elites all converge on the small alpine town for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Why? To discuss the future direction of life on our planet and the pressing issues of the day.
So, what is WEF, what actually happens in Davos and why does it matter?
What is the World Economic Forum?
WEF was founded back in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a Swiss-German economist and professor, in a bid to foster global cooperation on political, social, and economic issues.
The aim of the international not-for-profit organisation, which is now headquartered near Geneva, was to bring together the public and private sectors to brainstorm solutions to these global problems, something which remains one of its founding principles and speaks to its mission statement: “Committed to improving the state of the world”.
The first meeting of WEF five decades ago was held in Davos and has been the centre of its annual gathering every year since, the resort’s name even becoming the common shorthand for the event.
Who attends Davos?
What do Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg, and Elton John have in common? Superficially, probably nothing at all, but the one thing that unites them all is that they have been previous attendees in Davos.
One of the most unique things about Davos is those who attend. While it is often criticised as a talking shop for the world’s privileged 1 per cent, it is also where people come to try to lobby and influence these powerful elites in order to affect change on a global scale.
Typically, you can expect in attendance world leaders – usually the sitting US president, the leadership of the EU and the UN and so on – but also business leaders and entrepreneurs, prominent thinkers and academics, heads of NGOs and the charity sector, innovators, the media, civil society, activists of all creeds – even the occasional celebrity.
And they’re all extraordinarily in one place, at the same time, which means unprecedented access for many to global decision-makers.
The official guest list is often very exclusive and is made up of around 2,000 to 3,000 participants and speakers but the meeting itself attracts thousands more to its fringe events.
It is also where companies – and even countries and regions – set up their stalls to sell concepts and services, or attract investment.
Along the Promenade, Davos’ main thoroughfare, are what have become known as “houses” where companies can rent space (often retail outlets which are let out for the week) to set up embassies or outposts to welcome visitors, hold meetings, and so on.
Beyond the keynote speeches and panels at the Congress Centre, the main hub of Davos, this in itself has been a prominent hallmark of the annual event.
Why go to Davos?
One of the founding principles of WEF was to be impartial, independent, and devoid of special interests. But those sentiments aside, criticism is never far away in Davos.
Given the juxtaposition of competing agendas and the overlapping of the political and corporate spheres, WEF is often in the firing line of antagonists who argue it is a malignant force in the world.
New York Times economics correspondent Peter Goodman, for one, highlighted in his book ‘Davos Man’ the contradiction of asking billionaires and elites critics accuse of causing the world’s biggest problems to find ways to solve them.
One of the principal critiques levelled at the event organisers every year, for instance, is the hypocrisy of having the climate crisis on the meeting’s agenda while one in 10 participants in 2022 travelled by private jet to get there.
A talking shop for the world’s rich and powerful it may be, but Davos is an unparalleled forum for discussion and debate on a global scale, and does have some significant achievements to its record over its 50-year history.
In 1988, an agreement signed at the meeting, known as the Davos Declaration, was credited with helping Turkey and Greece step back from the brink of an armed conflict.
Again, in 1992, Nelson Mandela and then South African president FW de Klerk made their first joint appearance together on the international stage at Davos, arguably a significant step towards ending apartheid. The pair won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year.
In 2000, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (Gavi) was launched at Davos and has since improved access to vaccines for millions. Since its creation, it has contributed to the vaccination of 760 million children worldwide.