Does Davos ever make a difference?
AS the great and the good - plus a few pop stars - gather, it is time to reflect whether taxpayers get any benefit from the annual shindig. What do Angela Merkel, Prince Andrew, Al Gore and Pharrell Williams have in common? The answer is that they are all expected in Davos, Switzerland, later this week for the annual gathering held by the World Economic Forum (WEF), from January 21-24. While German Chancellor Merkel will no doubt give delegates her views on deflation and the looming return of the Eurozone crisis, the Queen's son is there to promote trade in a speech that may also touch on his own recent difficulties.
Meanwhile, the failed US presidential candidate Al Gore will share a stage with Pharrell Williams to discuss climate change. Williams is the American songwriter and producer famous for the rather controversial hit Blurred Lines. At Davos, all manner of lines are blurred as an unlikely mix of business bosses, bankers, senior politicians, heads of state, tech billionaires, popstars, Nobel Prizewinning economists, media moguls and journalists who get together for four days in an Alpine resort. So what exactly is Davos for? Is anything concrete achieved amid all the glitzy networking and corporate backslapping?
If the secretive and much smaller Bilderberg Group, a rival outfit, is the equiva- lent of the global elite's closed board meeting, then Davos is the noisier affair held with the media in attendance - the annual general meeting where shareholders meet their fellow investors and hear what developments are in store. It grew from the establishment, in 1971, of WEF in Geneva by Klaus Schwab, a German academic keen to encourage international cooperation and expose European businesses to the latest management techniques. The annual gathering became the centrepiece of the WEF's activities.
There were 444 delegates at the inaugural one and, as Davos grew in fame, it attracted world leaders alongside business power-brokers. This week, 2,500 invited guests - a quarter of them American and 10 per cent British - will meet to hear panellists analyse the issues of the day. The theme this year is ' The New Global Context' - although what that means is anyone's guess.
The real action at Davos, however, happens away from the staged, set-piece events, in a blizzard of socialising, glad-handing and pontificating - or "speed-networking", during which not one eye is met, as people scan the room for more important backs to slap. Some executives prefer to set up court in their chalet or hotel suite, where finance ministers, bankers and senior journalists come to pay homage. For corporate titans with busy diaries, Davos provides the opportunity to talk to all the influential figures they might want to see throughout the year, over just a few days. Then, in the evening, after dinners hosted by the major banks and sponsors, it is party time.
In 2013, the Napster founder and Facebook shareholder Sean Parker threw a notorious "taxidermy party", with big-ticket DJs, non-stop cocktails and stuffed animals with lasers for eyes. The cavorting causes some resentment on the part of the WEF, because it conflicts with the austere founding vision of Klaus Schwab. But any disapproval does not stop the partying. All this frenetic activity, combined with the mountain air, tends to get those attending rather overexcited. This week, Twitter timelines will be snowed under with tweets from Davos.
Many delegates will post pictures and observations about anything from a chief executive's snow shoes to banal statements made by the panellists. This, despite almost none of it being of any interest to anyone outside Davos. The sceptics are being unfair, though, say those who run the WEF. Theirs is an event that does important work: How else are the lessons of policy failures to be learnt if prime ministers, bankers and business types do not meet to talk, bond and listen to leading thinkers? After all, the aim of their non-profit organisation is, they say, to "improve the state of the world". Improving the world is a marvellous idea, but not everyone agrees that Davos is a force for good.