Davos 2019: What is the World Economic Forum and who will be attending this year’s summit?

Political leaders, chief executives, NGOs, academics and activists descend on Swiss ski resort every January for policy conference regularly targeted by anti-globalisaton protesters

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Thursday 17 January 2019 17:31
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'America is open for business' Donald Trump tells World Economic Forum in Davos

Members of the World Economic Forum (WEF) will descend on the Alpine ski town of Davos in Switzerland next week for the body’s annual conference.

The gathering of political leaders, chief executives, NGOs, academics and activists has been held in the mountain resort region of Graubunden since 1971, when the organisation was founded by the German economist Klaus Schwab.

Last year, 3,000 delegates from 110 countries attended 400 sessions held over the course of the four-day symposium. More than 500 journalists were in attendance to watch US president Donald Trump booed for repeating his familiar criticisms of the press while former British prime minister David Cameron made headlines after being buttonholed by a reporter into arguing Brexit “isn’t a disaster”.

What is the WEF?

The WEF defines itself as “committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas”.

In addition to providing a space for the exchange of ideas and policy proposals, Davos has also served as a platform from which world leaders can resolve their differences.

Most famously, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk, South Africa's last white minority leader, shook hands on the future of their country at the summit in 1992. Two years later, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, reached key draft agreements on the disputed territories of Gaza and Jericho.

David Cameron says Brexit 'isn't a disaster' at the World Economic Forum in Davos

It has also seen controversy.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a session in 2009 after arguing with Mr Peres who had subsequently become Israel's prime minister, North Korea’s invitation was revoked in 2016 over sanction-defying nuclear tests while Chinese premier Xi Jinping used a speech in 2017 to stand up for the international establishment after populist uprisings had led the Leave campaign to win the Brexit referendum and seen President Trump enter the White House.

Among the many notable celebrities to have addressed the WEF is Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, a passionate environmentalist, who spoke at the forum’s gathering in 2016 on climate change, pledging a $15m (£11.6m) donation on behalf of his foundation. A commendable effort undermined somewhat when he was ridiculed four months later for using a private jet to fly from France to New York to accept an award bestowed by a clean water group.

The WEF has faced criticism in the past, with its meetings picketed by anti-globalisation protesters who believe organisations like the forum, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, exacerbate poverty and environmental destruction by promoting corporate interests and profit-driven business practices over humanitarian concerns.

Davos, they argue, amounts to little more than the Champions League of networking events for Fat Cats.

The Transnational Institute, a Dutch non-profit think tank, has gone further, attacking “the Davos class” and suggesting the WEF’s purpose is “to function as a socialising institution for the emerging global elite, globaliation’s 'Mafiocracy' of bankers, industrialists, oligarchs, technocrats and politicians. They promote common ideas, and serve common interests: their own”.

What is the theme of this year’s summit?

The WEF is again placing a green agenda at the centre of its 2019 summit, whose theme is: “Globalisation 4.0: Shaping a New Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The collective recently issued a report warning the international community’s ability to combat pollution has plummeted to “crisis levels” as a result of political and economic tensions, citing the US-China trade war as a particularly threatening development.

“With global trade and economic growth at risk in 2019, there is a more urgent need than ever to renew the architecture of international cooperation,” said WEF president Borge Brende.

“We simply do not have the gunpowder to deal with the kind of slowdown that current dynamics might lead us towards.

“What we need now is coordinated, concerted action to sustain growth and to tackle the grave threats facing our world today.”

Who will be attending?

Among those arriving in Davos this year will be German chancellor Angela Merkel, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Brazil’s new firebrand president Jair Bolsonaro, Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu, New Zealand’s PM Jacinda Ardern, Italian PM Guiseppe Conte, prime minister Pedro Sanchez of Spain, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, Emmerson Mnangawa of Zimbabwe, Belgium’s PM Charles Michel and both PM Mark Rutte and Queen Maxima of the Netherlands.

President Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron are all too busy putting out fires at home.

Bill Gates, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde, Sir David Attenborough, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Prince William and Al Gore will also be in attendance.

More surprisingly, Black-Eyed Pea and would-be tech entrepreneur Will.I.Am and magician David Blaine are attending, following on from chef Jamie Oliver’s talk last year.

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