World Economic Forum: Will the real Klaus Schwab stand up, please

The World Economic Forum has been routinely called a 'talking shop' where nothing changes and almost every event is more of the same

World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, relevance, talking shop, event relevance, Greta Thunberg, Nelson Mandela, US President, Donald Trump, Davos, Switzerland
The man behind the World Economic Forum, German economist Klaus Schwab, launched the event in 1971 as the 'European Management Forum'

The 50th World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting at Davos in Switzerland is all set to conclude this weekend and the old debate about its relevance has resurfaced again.

But such debates should have stopped long ago given the fact that from US President Donald Trump to 17-year-old activist Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg, popularly known as Greta Thunberg, to Nelson Mandela have graced the event. Not to forget founders and CEOs of Fortune 50 companies.

The WEF has been routinely called a ‘talking shop’ where nothing changes and almost every event is more of the same. But it is worth examining its importance and whether the world would be worse off without such an event taking place at all.

The WEF website admits as much stating that its annual event gets described as a talking shop and that it is not so. Therefore, after the end of each of the annual jamboree, it lists out a number of achievements which took place during each of the events.

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For example, at the conclusion of the 2017 version, WEF came up with a list of 10 achievements during the event. Some of these include the launch of a new fund backed by the Norwegian government that will raise $400 million and protect 5 million hectares in countries working to reduce deforestation and forest and peat degradation.

The fund could lead to $1.6 billion in deforestation-free agriculture investments, also leading to job creation and economic growth. Second, the launch of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) with the aim to quickly react to epidemics by creating vaccines that could be released quickly once an outbreak occurs. (We don’t know whether such a vaccine was released soon after the coronavirus broke out in China.)

It pointed out eight other achievements which it believes will make the world a better place to live.

The agenda for the 50th edition ranges from addressing climate and environmental challenges, transforming industries to achieve more sustainable and inclusive business models, to driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution. All these are extremely relevant issues that need urgent attention of our world leaders but haven’t we heard them before.

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The man behind WEF, German economist Klaus Schwab, launched the event in 1971 as the ‘European Management Forum’ and in 1987 changed it to its current name. All its 800-odd employees receive a salary including Schwab himself. As of last year, its revenues were around $356 million, according to The Economist magazine.

The event attracts about 3,000 A-listers, which includes world leaders, famous economists and the rich and the popular from the entertainment world. CEOs from across the world mark their dates months ahead of the conference and make it a point to be seen with television crews and the press following them around. Many corporate leaders have admitted that they get their work done, especially in matters of alliances and closing deals, far more quickly than crisscrossing the world for the same. But then, that’s not what the WEF was intended for.

The WEF in its website states it is committed to “improving the state of the world.” It aims to shape global, regional and industrial agendas by bringing people together through dialogue. But all this comes at a cost for the participants. According to the WEF website, membership and partnership fees range from CHF60,000 ($62,000/₹44 lakh) to CHF600,000 ($619,438/₹4.4 crore) depending on the level of engagement.

An additional $27,000 is charged for buying the attendance badge though one assumed that the participant fee is all that is needed to participate in the annual event. It is of course loose change for the 119 billionaires (including 19 from India) who are participating in this year’s event.

The WEF also makes allowances for those who can’t and won’t pay, especially those from the civil society, and of course heads of states from over 70 countries. Without them in attendance, the WEF would look like a rich man’s club than a global economic conference to discuss some of the most pressing issues concerning mankind. Hence, the fee waiver to lure government heads. Security costs are shared with Swiss government entities on the federal, cantonal and municipal level.

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Over the years, the WEF has made it a point to invite people from the world of glamour, giving away awards to those who have taken time off for doing charitable work, or for the emancipation of women or the underprivileged. This year, our own Deepika Padukone received an award for carrying out work in the area of destigmatising depression and mental health issues. Priyanka Chopra is another celebrity who was seen standing alongside Tata Sons’ chairman, N Chandrasekaran in a picture which was printed across most Indian newspapers.

In the current edition, the much-awaited speech from US President Trump turned out to be an election speech ahead of the US general elections in November with the President trumpeting about his achievements and how the American economy has grown from sub-zero to whatever levels that he chose to mention at that point. He also made it a point to tell European leaders that he will come after them, slapping higher tariffs if they do not “fall in line” now that he has “taken care” of the “threat” from China.

Forbes magazine reporting about the Davos event pointed out quite succinctly that while the WEF debates about the issues concerning the common man, “this rarefied event excludes the average person to which the event is meant to help.” The fact that all the participants will descend on Davos in their private jets and copters and luxury cars to debate about changes in the environment is something that they clearly ignore, though appropriate noises are being made on how the participants will buy carbon credits to offset the emission from their vehicles.

But Schwab has the powers to change the contours of the conference completely. The World Economic Forum need not be rich people’s rendezvous. It can convert itself to be the voice of the have-nots, the forgotten, the marginalised whose cause it espouses but doesn’t let them come anywhere close to the elites who frequent its marquee conference. More than money, it will need real guts and determination to transform itself. What remains to be seen is whether WEF will be more meaningful as the years go by. It also remains to be seen the kind of legacy the 81-year-old Schwab wants to leave behind.