If you were to check the diaries of leaders from around the world, mid-January is likely to be marked by one word: “Davos”.
It wasn’t always like this. In contrast to the 3,000 plus delegates from 90 different countries expected at this year’s event, the first – in 1971 – was attended by only a few hundred people. They were there on the invitation of the event’s founder, Klaus Schwab, a German economics professor who had recently returned from a year at Harvard and wanted to share his experiences and newly acquired knowledge of American management techniques.
Two years later it started to consider global economic and social issues, with the first political leaders invited. In 1987 it changed its name from the European Management Forum to the World Economic Forum, and its annual conference was well enough known to be referred to simply as “Davos”.
As the prestige of the conference grew, more politicians, thought leaders and celebrities began attending the event. Today, it attracts a veritable who’s who list of politicians, business people, philanthropists, celebrities and athletes.
Leading on leadership?
Following on from last year’s theme of the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, Davos 2017 will be focusing on “Responsive and Responsible Leadership”. According to the conference organisers, this means: “Responsive and responsible leadership requires recognising that frustration and discontent are increasing in the segments of society that are not experiencing economic development and social progress. Their situation will only become more uncertain with the onset of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on future employment”.
It’s a theme set to be picked up by the week’s headline speaker, Xi Jinping, who will become the first Chinese president ever to attend Davos and will be participating in a plenary session on “inclusive globalisation”. While he is likely to gain much of the spotlight, the agenda over the week offers plenty of opportunities for other leaders to make their mark: US Vice President Joe Biden will make a brief appearance to discuss his initiative to eradicate cancer, British Prime Minister Theresa May will make what is billed as a “special address” and IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde will contribute to a session on “A positive narrative for the global community”. These are just a few examples – there are plenty more.
For Klaus Schwab, though, the week’s discussions are underpinned by the urgent need to find solutions to the multitude of challenges which adorn today’s political landscape. “The world is fundamentally transforming technologically, economically, socially and politically,” he writes in his pre-event blog. “The ongoing transformation needs to be shaped by appropriate policies and institutions. There are no simple, ready-made solutions. What we urgently need are pragmatic and future-oriented actions, even in the form of small steps, to provide positive narratives.”
Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima agrees that urgency is a pre-requisite but, by contrast, is thinking big in her drive to end inequality. She writes: “Governments lead, but so do the super-rich, many of whom are gathering in Davos. Together they have a pivotal role to play in creating a world where we can all be fortunate and not just the few. Yes, that does mean redistribution. Governments should end the extreme concentration of wealth in order to end poverty. This means tackling tax dodging, but also increasing taxes on wealth and high incomes to ensure a more level playing field and generate the billions of dollars needed to invest in healthcare, education and job creation.”
There is no doubt that Davos will once again garner numerous headlines, tweets, blogs and news reports over the next few days. That’s a given. What will be more interesting is if practical solutions emerge from the forthcoming discussions, solutions that can have a real impact on citizens worldwide. Watch this space.
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