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The World Economic Forum: elitism of global challenges



This week in Davos (Switzerland), the 54th edition of the World Economic Forum took place. But can we still consider the meeting an actual opportunity for cooperation and global development, or instead an occasion to merely pursue the interests of the world’s economic élites?

The World Economic Forum (WEF) defines itself as an “International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation”, which aims to promote dialogue and collaboration on global issues. De facto, it is a meeting between political leaders, business executives and masters of finance coming from all over the world, who each year in January spend a week in the Swiss Alps to publicly discuss topics of international interest, such as international security, technological and economic development, energy resources management, industrialization.

A brief WEF history

The WEF was created in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German economist at the University of Geneva, as a non-profit foundation that wanted to “improve the state of the world”. When in 1971 the first Forum was organized, it was initially called the European Management Forum and hosted European leaders and entrepreneurs, together with US economists and academics. In 1987 the name was changed into World Economic Forum, to stimulate a more global participation. Its unique location, Davos, has hosted numerous leaders and held decisive meetings and negotiations: in 1988, the Davos Declaration between Turkey and Greece was signed; in 1992 Davos hosted the meeting between the South African President F. W. Klerk and Nelson Mandela, while in 1994 Yasser Arafat (OLP) and the Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres had drawn up a draft agreement during the Forum days. There has only been one exception to the location in 2001, when the meeting was organized in New York City as a form of support towards the United States after 9/11.

This year the Theme of the conference was Rebuilding Trust “into the future, within societies and among nations”. The hosts were over 2.000, from 120 countries, among which Antony Blinken, Li Qiang, Emmanuel Macron, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Ursula von der Leyen, H.H. Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Bill Gates.

The critics

The World Economic Forum is not new to criticisms. Historically, one of its most controversial acts was the publication of an article in the Forum Global Agenda titled "Boycott Israel", which was distributed to the over 2.000 participants to the meeting and later met the criticism of the founder himself. Today this particular trend seems to have however reversed, with Erdogan asking his ministers not to take part in the event as opposed to the organization’s support for Israel.

Although throughout history participation has been expanding to a growing number of countries, for a long time the World Economic Forum has been a monopoly of the rich white Western man. 

To better understand how the Davos’ Forum actually works, it may be interesting to observe the fee of participation: depending on how much engagement the participant is looking for during the Forum, in 2017 the membership range varied from 6.000 to 60.000 CHF. Non-business leaders (as head of states and ministers) are clearly not required to pay, but still there is no doubt that we are facing “one of the world’s most high-profile gatherings”, in a world where high-profile stands essentially for “whealthy”. Financing comes today from over 1000 corporations. 

Davos has been described as “detached from everyday challenges”, as the obvious elitism of the event makes it hard to believe that the interests and the priorities of the world as a human community are actually pursued, as significantly different from those of the class represented in the forum. This substantial lack of democratization and inclusiveness strongly contrasts with the idea promoted by the organization of a dialogue involving all society’s stakeholders. The economic approach professed by the founder itself was in fact defined as socially responsible stakeholder capitalism; the WEF has instead promoted over time a neoliberal path of development and economic growth, towards privatizations and de-regulamentation, which is perfectly in line with the interests of corporations and business leaders, but has proven over time to have further increased economic and social inequalities across the globe. In what is certainly no coincidence, at the eve of the 2024’s edition of the Forum, Oxfam has published the paper INEQUALITY INC. How corporate power divides our world and the need for a new era of public action, which emphasizes how global wealth in the last three years has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few super rich, while the data about extreme poverty keep on alarmingly rising.

Across time, partly because of the lack of transparency of some Davos' activities, many fascinating and even alarming conspiracy theories about what really happens during the WEF have been created, up to the idea of the orchestration of the Covid-19 Pandemic. If what happens in the backstage may not significantly chase our attraction, what is uncontroversial is that Davos corporate leaders’ role remains prominent in tackling today’s challenges (in terms of financial resources and funding), but a “trust rebuilding” process is necessary more than ever towards their good intentions.

Image copyright: World Economic Forum/Michael Calabrò

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