The World Economic Forum is grappling with an image problem

Shaun H. Ruff


The World Economic Forum is trying to fix an image problem.

Nearly 2,500 global leaders from business, politics and civil society are expected to take part in a rare springtime version of Davos this week.

The annual meeting will see movers and shakers convene in Switzerland’s luxury Alpine ski resort of Davos for five days of conversation on issues including Covid-19, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the climate crisis.

Organizers of the event had postponed the meeting from its traditional January slot over safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, in a welcome boost to local residents, the forum’s first in-person event has now returned after a two-year hiatus.

The theme of this year’s event is “History at a Turning Point: Government Policies and Business Strategies.”

“It means a lot to us. It means a lot to the whole of Switzerland,” Samuel Rosenast, a spokesperson for the local tourism board, said in an interview with CNBC’s Tom Chitty.

Rosenast said the event was “unbelievably important” to those residing in Europe’s highest town, estimating that the resort could see a windfall of approximately 70 million Swiss francs ($72 million) in just this week alone.

“Every business is in contact with the World Economic Forum. The people know how important it is,” Rosenast said. “Most people here are looking forward to the World Economic Forum. They are happy that it takes place here again this year.”

‘A symbol of a failed era’

That’s not to say everyone is pleased to see the return of the world’s business and political elite to the Swiss Alps. The event has been sharply criticized in recent years for being out of touch, ineffective and irrelevant.

Three years ago, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went viral at a Davos panel when he called out billionaires for tax avoidance. In a clip that has now been viewed nearly 11 million times, Bregman said that a global failure to effectively tackle tax avoidance was the primary cause of inequality.

“It feels like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one’s allowed to speak about water,” Bregman said at the time. “This is not rocket science … we have got to be talking about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes.”

The Swiss ski resort of Davos hosts the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Harold Cunningham | Getty Images News | Getty Images

More recently, protestors, activists and people on the frontlines of inequality have sought to challenge the WEF over its “empty rhetoric,” accusing Davos of representing “a symbol of a failed era” that should be left behind.

A report published Monday by global charity Oxfam found that 573 people became new billionaires during the coronavirus pandemic — at a rate of one every 30 hours. The brief, entitled “Profiting from Pain,” expects that 263 million additional people will fall into extreme poverty this year at a rate of 1 million people every 33 hours.

“Billionaires are arriving in Davos to celebrate an incredible surge in their fortunes. The pandemic and now the steep increases in food and energy prices have, simply put, been a bonanza for them,” said Gabriela Bucher, executive director of Oxfam International.

“Meanwhile, decades of progress on extreme poverty are now in reverse and millions of people are facing impossible rises in the cost of simply staying alive.”

In his youth, Philipp Wilhelm was one of those protesting the annual gathering of billionaires and political leaders in the town where he was born. Now, however, Wilhelm is the mayor of Davos, and his goal is to deliver a successful meeting.

“I protested during the annual meeting because, for me, it was important to express that it’s really crucial that we solve this climate crisis. And we need to make the world a more just place,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm said that he had taken part in protests because he felt it was essential to ensure that everyone arriving in Davos “gets the message that it’s really important to solve these issues.”

“Davos Man” has itself become synonymous with a stereotyped figure of a typical participant of the Forum — rich and powerful, perhaps out of touch, but most of all representative of the global elite.

Fabrice Coffrini | Afp | Getty Images

Wilhelm said he — and WEF — had changed their positions since his protesting days, adding that he believes he can influence policy more effectively in his current role.

When asked whether it was a concern that criticism of WEF had become too closely associated with Davos given that the town itself has become largely interchangeable with the forum, Wilhelm replied: “No it doesn’t bother me at all.”

“I think it is interesting that people know Davos as a place where people meet and discuss — and I mean it should be controversial. There should be a discussion about what is the right way to improve the state of the world,” Wilhelm said.

Davos 2022 is ‘one marker in time’

“The forum’s work is ongoing. The meeting is one marker in time,” said Saadia Zahidi, managing director at the World Economic Forum.

“What we’ve been doing over the last two and a half years — while it hasn’t been visible through a particular meeting — is a set of work that is trying to make a dent on inequality and at the same time also make changes towards addressing one of the biggest existential risks we all face which is climate change.”

When asked whether rising income inequality had become a particular problem for the forum, Zahidi replied: “Inequality is a problem for the world. I think we know that societies that do not combat inequality will have slower growth.”

“And so there has to be an effort that addresses inequality. Now, what does that? Better education, better skills, better jobs, addressing issues like taxation and changing the nature of our economies so that they actually work for people and not just for the few,” Zahidi said. “That is going to be front and center on next week’s agenda.”


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