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WEF 2020: From Rich, White Men’s Club towards More Socially Equitable World

by Nazir Tabbassum

The theme of WEF 2020, held in Davos from Tuesday 21 to Friday 24 January was “Stakeholders for a Cohesion and Sustainable World”.

The Forum’s mission statement emphasises its independence and impartiality, making Switzerland, which has a foreign policy of militarily neutrality, a fitting country for its headquarters.

The word Davos is being thrown around a lot during these days as some of the biggest names in business and global politics gather in Switzerland.

The 2020 summit is focused on “reshaping capitalism” and has seven themes, including Tech for Good, How to Save the Planet and Fairer Economics.

Swedish teenage activist Greta Thurnberg was a guest speaker, and 13-year old Naomi Wadler, who campaigns against gun violence in the US, also attending.

While the talks are thought-provoking, the networking opportunities the Forum provides are regarded as the real drawcard.

Only those invited to the Forum can attend, adding the distinct air of exclusivity. “You can’t just turn up at Davos on the day and hope to let into the meeting” the Forum website says. “There are fewer places available than there are people who want to attend”.

The public can watch through live streams, but watching the event is very different from being there, lining up for a post-meeting cup of tea among billionaires and world leaders.

US President Donal Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are among the G20 political leaders invited to this year’s meeting.

The hashtag #PakistanatDavos2020 trended at the top at number one in Pakistan. PM Imran Khan has attended the WEF 2020. The official speech that followed with an interview session with BorgeBrende, President of WEF was received exceedingly well as murmured by the crowd of Global leaders present as PM of Pakistan, Imran Khan took centre stage on the most prestigious global forums.

It must be noted that in 50 years of WEF, Imran Khan is the only leader from Pakistan who was given the honour and privilege to have a sole plenary and as predicted by WEF management itself, it was a full house.

The first meeting was organised by Klaus Schwab in 1971 when it was called the European Management Symposium. It brought together 450 participants, mostly chief executives from top companies in Europe. Speakers included economists, political scientists, physicists and public policy commentators. One of the talks was about the impact of computers on individual privacy. The summit lasted for about a fortnight, generated a profit of 25,000 Swiss francs ($37,674) and participants called for a repeat the following year.

Professor Schwab used the money to set up the Forum foundation and the tradition of an annual meeting was born.

Now the meeting has become a who’s who of the most important political and economic figures in the world.

Professor Schwab helped to develop the stakeholder theory, which is that business should serve employees, suppliers and the communities in which they operate as well as customers and shareholders.

The Forum originally set out to promote this idea that businesses should serve society as a whole. The mission statement of the Forum says, “We believe that progress happens by bringing together people from all walks of life who have the drive and the influence to make positive change”.

Now it is open to top executives from the Forum’s partner companies including Google, Facebook, The Coca Cola Company, Huawei and Mastercard.

It would be of great interest as to who initiated WEF and why did he choose Davos for the annual get together of the Corporate CEOs. Davos was originally taken as a health and wellness haven after German physician Alexander Spengler noted residents were unaffected by a tuberculosis epidemic when he arrived in the village in the 1860s. Mr Spengler regarded the Davos high-altitude climate and the “healing power of the diluted mountain air” as ideal for treating tuberculosis, which led to sanitoriums and recuperation spas opening in the Swiss Alps town.

The sanitoriums became the setting for the Nobel prize winner Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, which inspired the Forum’s founder – Klaus Schwab. The founder describes Davos as “a place of recreation and relaxation, where people took in clean mountain air to restore their health and recharge their minds”.

Professor Schwab chose Davos because he wanted participants in his first summit to “feel relaxed enough to speak frankly while maintaining camaraderie of purpose – mutual respect”.

Davos was deemed “comfortable enough” to not deter attendance, let remote enough to give participants a “feeling of seclusion”. At the time, the town also boasted a newly built conference centre.

Davos, a Swiss alpine town, has become the shorthand way to refer to the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting which is held here. The event is a chance for some of the most powerful figures in the world to get together, but for the uninitiated it can be a bit of enigma.

The Forum has been criticised in the past for being a rich, white men’s club. This year the Forum admits it is “overwhelmingly male” with just 24 per cent of the participants being female.

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has criticised world business leaders for ignoring calls to break away from fossil fuels, as young people protested in Davos over the climate emergency. Speaking on the final day of WEF, the 17-years old climate campaigner said leaders were not reacting to the crisis, and were not being held accountable for their inaction.

Last but not the least, how the cost of the event is generated?

Business participants have to pay to belong to the Forum through membership and partnership fees. These can range from 60,000 to 600,000 Swiss francs. But businesses have to pay an additional fee to send representatives to the meeting. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation reports this figure is about 25,000 Swiss francs.

Non-business participants sech as celebrities and heads of States do not pay to take part in the meeting.

Security costs are shared with the Swiss government. About 5,000 armed forces personnel are tasked with keeping the summit secure, while the airspace above Davos is restricted for the event. The heavy security presence is reported costing the Swiss defence ministry about 32 million Swiss francs.

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