It is tempting to dismiss the World Economic Forum at Davos as a mere talking shop for the masters of the universe, a place for the world’s buffed-and-polished plutocrats to see and be seen, the world championships of networking, and a four-day high-altitude, high-octane schmoozathon for the haves and the want-to-haves. It is, of course, all those things. The pertinent question is whether it is anything more.
The subtitle for the World Economic Forum, “Committed to Improving the State of the World”, is suitably grandiose in its scope, and, for 44 years, global leaders, superstars of the political world and their acolytes have overcome all sorts of financial hurdles – a pass for the conference itself costs more than £100,000 – and geographical difficulties – Davos is a two-and-a-half-hour train journey from the nearest major airport – to make their way to this small, unexceptional town in the Alps.
Much of the action here takes place in private, and of course it is very difficult to quantify the tangible effect of discussion, lobbying and the exchange of ideas. It would be a brave person to claim that anything which has ever happened in Davos has changed the lives of ordinary people. Although many of the world’s most powerful men and women are here, the power they are exercising over the course of these four days is of the soft variety, using their influence to move things an inch or two.
Equally, no one could say that some of the major topics on the agenda this year – cyber security, economic inequality, social instability, and public distrust of public and private institutions – do not merit attention. The long term, as ever, is diverted by the short term, and the havoc wreaked by last week’s revaluation of the Swiss Franc has taken precedence over, for instance, such discussion topics as “Europe’s Twin Challenges: Growth and Stability” and “The Promise and Peril of Exponential Technologies”. More than once I’ve heard someone from the UK, converting a restaurant bill into sterling, utter in disbelief: Oh, my God!
Outside the ring of steel which surrounds the conference centre – the Swiss certainly know how to do security – it’s hard to get a true sense of the seriousness of purpose that Davos avows. This may be partly due to the fact that this is a peculiarly barren year as far as celebrity is concerned. Last year, we had the Pope; this year, the hottest ticket is Prince Andrew.
More significant, however, is the fact that for most the global economic crisis seems to have passed. This means that the handbrake has come off, in a social context. In recent years, conspicuous consumption of alcohol would be considered offensively out of kilter with the times; this year, according to seasoned observers, there doesn’t appear to be such constraint.
Perhaps we in the outside world, away from these cloistered surroundings, should take heart from this. Things must be looking up if the champagne is flowing freely at Davos again. In truth, I don’t really know what is going on here. Not much is visible to the naked eye. And meanwhile, I have my own financial crisis. How much for a sandwich?
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