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Is Davos nothing more than an overpriced, ineffective ‘talking shop’?

  • The World Economic Forum's critics say the annual meeting has big dreams but few achievements
  • Around 3,000 global leaders, business people, policy makers and public officials attend WEF in Davos
  • WEF says it has helped to improve the state of the world
A hotel employee checks a bottle of champagne as he stands on the snow covered bar terrace of the InterContinental Hotel Davos
Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A hotel employee checks a bottle of champagne as he stands on the snow covered bar terrace of the InterContinental Hotel Davos

The World Economic Forum (WEF) generates a lot of headlines but many are less than generous to the Alpine meeting of influential political, economic and business leaders, claiming the annual meeting has big dreams but few achievements.

Around 3,000 global leaders, business people, policymakers and public officials attend the event in the ski resort of Davos in Switzerland, representing the cream of the political and economic world.

This has led to criticism of the Forum and its attendees — often called the "party of Davos" — who are viewed as the elite and hence "out of touch with the real world." WEF rebuffs such accusations, saying that it is "committed to improving the state of the world," a mission that's hard to argue with in terms of its aspirations.

While WEF says it has helped to improve the state of the world by re-defining growth, promoting adaptation and planning for the future, its detractors say the event is useless and the resort, where a hot dog can cost $43, smacks of elitism.

For one, Michael Ivanovitch, an independent analyst focusing on the world economy, geopolitics and investment strategy, is skeptical about the effectiveness of discussions in Davos.

"The forum is a talking shop without any consequence for world affairs … On the economic front, you will just hear platitudes you've heard 'x' times already," Ivanovitch told CNBC ahead of the Forum.

WEF aims to bring together what it calls "stakeholders" in both public and private organizations and sectors although membership is not cheap. Membership and partnership fees range from 60,000 Swiss francs ($62,243) to 600,000 Swiss francs (around $622,000) "depending on the level of engagement."

The Forum notes that most types of membership include the opportunity to participate in the annual meeting for the chief executive of the company," although Davos participation incurs a fee over and above membership or partnership fees."

Non-business participants in the meeting — from heads of state to leaders of the arts — do not pay to participate, however.

Davos has its many fans, however, not least of all those who regularly attend the event. Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Shiller told CNBC that he was a supporter of the meeting, which he is attending in 2018.

"I think that the WEF does help to achieve a general sense of enlightenment and community spirit," he told CNBC ahead of the 2018 forum. "World leaders are brought together to talk about themes that have an undercurrent of social progress. People there learn relevant facts, and learn to appreciate each other's community spirit," he said.

Davos also robustly defends itself from the label that it is one big schmooze for the well-heeled and well-off, saying that its annual themes are a call for discussion, resolution and joint action to try to make the world a better place.

Global problems aren't easy to solve

Lee Howell, the Forum's head of global programming, a member of the managing board and a key organizer of the event, told CNBC that it was hard to make the event's attendees agree to joint actions on the world's problems.

"To be very, very candid, you'll find a lot of areas in the agenda in Davos are probably more of an expression of where the shared interests are," he told CNBC ahead of the meeting. "Then it gets a little tougher to find the shared purpose (between stakeholders) and then even tougher to find that shared action."

Snow-covered buildings stand illuminated at night in the town of Davos, the location for the World Economic Forum's (WEF)
Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Snow-covered buildings stand illuminated at night in the town of Davos, the location for the World Economic Forum's (WEF)

But he said WEF had created a shared space for peer-to-peer conversations and that the key was to get leaders to realize they "have a shared interest in the problem." Once that was done, the core aim of the Forum was to get participants from a place of shared purpose to shared action.

"I think what we owe to the leaders and the public each year is a frank assessment on what that state of the world is … But it's not sufficient to just say here's what we think the diagnosis or prognosis is, there has to be some element of a call to action," he said.

"(But) people intuitively recognize that if these problems were easy to resolve we would've got on with it," he said.

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