Hundreds of attendees met at the World Economic Forum (WEF) last week in Davos, Switzerland. Since its inception in 1971, the conference has increasingly come to be seen as a symbol of capitalism, globalisation, and the world’s elite. The WEF faces something of an image problem as many in the developed and developing worlds turn their backs on the globe in favour of looking inward. In fact, a survey by Trust Barometer revealed at the Forum indicated that 56% of people view capitalism as “a force that is bad for the world.” UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who banned his cabinet from attending this year’s Forum, summarised the antagonism towards the event: “our focus is on delivering for the people, not champagne with billionaires.”
What better way to deliver for the people than to engage with the world and seek to collaborate rather than isolate oneself? For while there is no denying that Davos has its fair share of flaws, the conference is on the whole a force for progress. The ideals it represents – international cooperation, openness, liberalism, global markets – have been responsible for vast improvements in the lives of millions, if not billions of people around the world over the past half-century. And for those who believe today’s capitalism to be too ruthless and profit-seeking, Davos presents an alternative: stakeholder capitalism.
Perhaps most importantly, the conference provides an opportunity for the private and public worlds to meet in an environment which fosters cooperation – indeed, the organisation calls itself the “International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.” The chief concerns of our day, among them climate change, will not and cannot be solved by solely by governments, or by private actors alone. Rather these issues will require engagement and collaboration, the conference’s forte.
Sustainability took centre stage at the Forum, culminating in teenage activist and third-time attendee Greta Thunberg’s grave warning that “our house is still on fire.” Thunberg was just one of many activists attending the event in order to get their message across to an unrivalled audience world leaders, executives, and donors. The impact of having such a group of people in the same town at the same time is often underrated by critics of the Forum. “Davos can be a real amplifier,” in the words of a spokesperson for Project Red, which was launched in 2006 at Davos and funds the global fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.
These attendees by-and-large echoed Thunberg sentiments, with CEOs and politicians alike calling for change. Though it is yet to be seen whether words will lead to significant action, there is some sign of tangible efforts, such as the Trillion Trees campaign. An initiative led by the WEF itself, the project secured pledges from companies and national governments, including an endorsement from famed climate change skeptic, US President Donald Trump. It is clear that there is some truth to the Forum’s founder, Klaus Schwab’s claim that “[a trillion trees] presents an important example of how stakeholders from all walks of life and all ages can work together to achieve a single, globally significant goal.”
It is not just the public-facing side of Davos which can be harnessed for the good of the world. The WEF is also the home of countless unrecorded events at which Davos men and women can foster change behind the scenes. Micah White, who founded Occupy Wall Street, a movement which could easily be described as the anti-Davos, remarked in a column for the Guardian that the “Forum is perhaps the only place on earth where these opportunities for fraternisation are possible.”
The WEF has been the subject of much criticism. Some deserved – Prince Charles, for instance, allegedly took three private jets, flying over 16,000 miles in eleven days prior to the event, where he proceeded to ruminate on the threat posed by climate change. But when considering the WEF and its continued importance, it would be wise to disregard Boris Johnson’s populist platitudes, and instead take heed of the speech given by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the Forum: "the fact that people seem to no longer wish to talk to one another - that there is no possibility to build a bridge between these different views - that is something that fills me with grave concern...”