WTF Happens At WEF?

Initiatives, billion-dollar deals, protests and fancy lunches. Curious about what happens at Davos? Here’s a ready reckoner.

WrittenBy:Sunayana Singh
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What’s all this talk about Davos in the papers? Looks like a five-star ski resort. That’s because it is, kind of. It also hosts the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) of global, political and business elites every year. This year’s jamboree came to a close on January 27, 2013. Basically, the big boys get together and over a few glasses of bubbly, change the world and make it a better place for you and for me and the entire human race, and there are people dying if you care enough for the living, make a better place for you and for me…you and for me…you and…

Huh? WTF! No no! It’s WEF.

It’s sounding suspiciously like a mela for the rich and famous to party. Ye of little faith. This is all for a good cause. To save the world and…

Sounds like a Miss World pageant. No! Those strutting their stuff here aren’t young and pretty. They’re old and not pretty at all. And mostly men.

Oh! Ok. The WEF is a Swiss non-profit foundation, based in Cologny, Geneva. It was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a business professor at the University of Geneva. It was originally called the “European Management Forum” and renamed the World Economic Forum in 1987 when it “broadened its vision” to provide a platform for resolving international conflicts. It also strives to be impartial, claims to not be tied to any political, partisan or national interests and is “committed to improving the State of the World” for you and for me…you and for me…you and…

Who wrote this spiel? Sounds suspiciously like Suhel Seth. Hmm! He’d have loved to. The participants of this “save the world” effort are old rich guys and policy wonks. And it’s not just Davos which is the beneficiary of WEF’s largesse. The WEF also convenes other “get-togethers” which China and India host regularly. And so don’t you go thinking that it’s all a lot of hot air and clinking glasses at Davos. The foundation also produces a series of research reports and “engages its members in sector-specific initiatives” to make these sectors more efficient.

So what’s the big deal about Davos? India not good enough to make a hullabaloo about? Ah, the famous Indian persecution complex kicking in again. The main platform is the annual meeting at Davos – imaginatively called “Davos”! The 2013 meeting took place from January 23-27 and like every year was attended by business, political, academic and other leaders of society. The theme was “Resilient Dynamism”, after Schwab declared that “the need for global cooperation has never been greater”. He’s also known as the king of stating the obvious. The theme for 2012 was “The Great Transformation: Shaping New Models”

So who are these “leaders” who attend Davos? Well, there are 2,500 of them. Business leaders, politicians, religious leaders, ambassadors, NGOs, journalists and think-tanks from close to 100 countries.

So what do these 2500 global movers and shakers do at Davos? Well, there are 220 sessions, no less! There were discussions on “issues of global concern” – international conflicts, poverty and environmental problems and possible solutions to heal the world and make it a better place for you and for me, you and for me…

Stop it! OK. When they get tired of thinking and talking, they attend lavish parties and lunches. 

So any known names? Well, there’s Ban Ki-moon, Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, Tony Blair. Impressed?

Ban Ki-Moon? I’m assuming his ex-colleague Shashi Tharoor didn’t grace the occasion. What about our Indian corporate fat cats? Don’t underestimate us. About 150 CEOs and business heads including Bajaj, Mittals, Mukesh Ambani, Azim Premji, along with four Union Ministers, clinked glasses with Ban Ki-Moon and his ilk. And to make our desi boys feel at home, the WEF organisers arranged The India Adda, where Rahul Ram and Tuheen Chakravarty of fusion band Indian Ocean performed with an African artiste. “Spontaneous” conversations over “myriad issues” were conducted over delectable Indian culinary delights. 

This whole thing is sounding like one exorbitant party. Who’s funding it? The Forum’s funding comes from three sources: Membership fees from its 1,000 members and partners; Partnership fees from Strategic Partners, Industry Partners and from partners in the events; and participation fees for all the meetings.

And which are these “member companies”? Companies like Bain & Company and The QI Group of Companies and…

Wait! Bain and Company will solve the world’s problems? Isn’t that the apple of Mitt Romney’s eye? The heartless corporation working to make the super rich even richer at the cost of workers. Ok Commie! Don’t turn crimson. The typical member company is a global enterprise with more than US$ 5 billion in turnover…

5 billion dollars?! It’s not cheap to host parties, lunches and music concerts for the who’s who of the world!

And who are the strategic partners? The StrategicPartners are select member companies who strongly support, contribute to and benefit from the World Economic Forum’s commitment to improving the state of the world, and make it a better place, for you and for me…for you and for me…you and for…


You’re slipping into Counselage speak. Name some. Pepsico, Deloitte, Audi AG, Dupont,Coca Cola. You know, the usual suspects. They’re actively involved in the organisation’s activities and contribute their expertise and resources.

Meaning money? Money-resources. It’s all semantics at the end of the day.

So this is all sounding like a rich boys’ club! Well, you’re not the only one who thinks so. In the late 1990s, the WEF was criticised heavily by anti-globalisation activists who claimed that capitalism and globalisation were increasing poverty and destroying the environment. 10,000 demonstrators disrupted the WEF in Melbourne, Australia. Demonstrations and protests are commonplace in Davos.

But does any good come out of this party? Of course. There’s a you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours bonhomie on full display. There are private and corporate deals cut on the sidelines, like a $10 billion shale gas deal between Ukraine and oil giant Royal Dutch Shell.

Why do our political leaders and policy makers attend? Well good comes for them too. They network and make connections and arrange jobs and consultancy programmes for when they’re out of power. It’s not you, taxpayer, who pays their salaries when they are voted out. And a little holiday at public expense never hurt any public servant.

NO! I meant something good for you and for me, you and for me, you and …remember? Oh! OK! Let’s see. There’s the Global Health Initiative, which engages businesses in public-private partnerships to tackle HIV/AIDS, TB, malaria and health systems. Or the Global Education Initiative (GEI), launched in 2003, which brought together international IT companies and governments in Jordan, Egypt and India, and resulted in new personal computer hardware in the classrooms and more local teachers trained in e-learning. It’s now an educational blueprint in other countries.

There’s the Water Initiative. And the Environmental Initiative, which covers Climate Change and Water and develops recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Sounds quite wonderful. Anything else? Well, political leaders use WEF as a neutral platform to solve problems. The Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey helped them avert war. In 1992, South African President FW de Klerk met Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangouthu Buthelezi, their first joint appearance outside South Africa. In 1994, Israeli and the PLO reached a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho. Get the drift? 

Anything momentous for the sub-continent or do we just keep sipping champagne and watching from the sidelines? Well, this year, India assured Walmart and Tesco that it will handhold their entry into India. And Imran Khan expressed full confidence that his party would sweep the country’s general elections.

Im the Dim was there? Also, the turmoil in the Arab world took centre stage for a bit. Jordan’s King Abdullah II urged “desperately needed” action over Syria’s civil war, though he struck out.

So it’s an equal world at Davos? Well there are some firsts among equals. According to a BBC journalist “Davos runs an almost caste-like system of badges”.

What? Sounds a little Nazi-ish. You’re not too off the mark. While there weren’t any Stars Of David handed out, there are different coloured badges. A white badge means you’re a delegate or a senior journalist (upper caste). Orange badge makes you “a run-of-the-mill working journalist”. (Lower caste with lesser privileges). Wearing a suit helps.

If you happen to make it to Davos 2014.

Do: Dress to party and get your hands on a white badge.

Don’t: Expect world peace. But do expect the world to become a better place for you and for me, for you and for me…you and for me…you and for me…

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