Praised and derided in equal doses, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has undergone some facelifts over the past 40 years, but its basic function has remained intact.
The scale of the WEF Davos 2010 meeting is now much larger than the inaugural European Management Symposium in 1971, but the concept is still to discuss economic and social challenges facing the world.
Four decades ago WEF founder Klaus Schwab saw the need to bring together European business leaders and United States counterparts and politicians to develop answers to the economic problems of the day.
Writing in the Forum’s annual report on its 25th anniversary in 1995, Schwab revealed that he never foresaw that the event would still be running well into the next millennium.
“What was planned as a single event turned out to be the answer to a fundamental need: to create a permanent bridge between political and business decision-making,” he wrote.
Schwab’s so-called stakeholder approach – bringing business people face-to-face with global political and social representatives in order to find common ground – expanded to such an extent that the organisation was renamed WEF in 1987.
All that has changed is a widening of focus away from Europe and business, according to WEF managing director André Schneider. “In the beginning it was centered around business, whereas today it is becoming a more equal level platform where all the stakeholders play the same role,” he told swissinfo.ch.
In addition to Davos, WEF also hosts meetings in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. “You need to think global and act local,” Schneider told swissinfo.ch.
But a more prominent and visual role has exposed WEF to more criticism. Most of this comes from pressure groups that view the Forum and its participants as a symbol of globalisation’s destructive power against minority sections of society.
Even eminent US political scientist Samuel Huntingdon derided the “Davos man” as those who “have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite's global operations”.
Civil demonstrations against the Davos meeting are held every year and have occasionally resulted in violence, although less so in recent years. The recent financial crash and resulting recession have also fuelled critics who claim that a growing borderless, yet interconnected, economic power can be a force for destruction.
Swiss-based pressure group Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland team up each year outside the gates of the WEF Davos meeting to organise the Public Eye Awards that name and shame “nasty” companies.
Berne Declaration spokesman Andreas Missbach told swissinfo.ch that it was essential to present an alternative view of the annual meeting. “A business-led process that claims to solve all the world’s problems was definitely not what we wanted to see,” he said.
Ruffled by accusations that it is merely a talking shop for the powerful and glamorous, WEF claims to have played a role in unifying Germany, easing conflict flashpoints in the Middle East and between Greece and Turkey and bringing together opposing sides in apartheid South Africa.
The organisation has also spawned a series of initiatives to look at global problems such as poverty, health and the environment.
Schneider argued that the informal and unregulated setting of Davos and other meetings was not the place for major decisions to me made or taken. But he insisted that such initiatives had “developed more ways to translate discussions in real actions”.
Come a long way
Schneider expressed pride that many dissenting voices had been invited to attend the forums. WEF’s website quotes Barbara Stocking, chief executive of Oxfam, as saying: “Davos offers a unique opportunity to meet the leaders who shape how the world works. It's a chance to influence their views about poverty and development and help them understand how the decisions they make can have such a dramatic impact on poor people.”
WEF also runs an Open Forum in Davos each year that allows members of the public to attend debates. In addition, WEF has tapped into website platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, in an effort to include the views of the man on the street at meetings.
Such activities enable WEF to boast that the Davos meeting will “include” far more than the 2,500 official delegates who will be inside the congress centre.
For better or worse, WEF Davos has come a long way since 444 participants, mainly from western European businesses, first came to the ski resort in 1971.
Matthew Allen, swissinfo.ch (With input from Simon Bradley)