What the heck’s a WEF, anyway?

2015-01-21 15:20

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting in Davos this week is almost universally viewed as important – although many would be hard pressed to explain why.

It was the brainchild of German polymath Klaus Schwab, who is still the executive chairman and has also been instrumental in popularising the notion of “social entrepreneurship” all over the world.

The WEF came into being in 1971, although it was called the European Management Forum until 1986.

It was originally meant to bring together European captains of industry to plot the continent’s response to its declining economic relevance compared to the US.

Today its mission is simply to “improve the state of the world”.

This broadly means setting the global agenda in a way that makes the interest of big business and everyone else coincide.

Schwab has created three other international networking NGOs that gravitate around the WEF: the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the Global Shapers Community and the Forum of Young Global Leaders.

To produce all the thought leadership materials the WEF publishes it has created a transnational brains trust called the Global Agenda Councils.

This week the WEF has its 45th annual meeting in the Swiss ski resort town of Davos under the theme “the new global context”.

The three-day conference has the usual programme of panel discussions, but is probably more important as a networking event drawing literally hundreds of the most powerful men in the world...and some women.

The annual meeting is also generally used as a platform for big announcments or launches.

In the past the WEF has been the scene for Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements and the UN’s Global Compact initiative.

Legend has it that attending the WEF annual meeting in 1992 is what caused former president Nelson Mandela to reject nationalisation of South Africa’s mines as an ANC policy.

The WEF’s work during the other 362 days of the year mostly involves research and a long series of annual publications like its influential Competitiveness Report and the Global Risks Report.

A lot of these get released during the annual meeting to ensure attention.

The organisation counts corporations as its members, specifically the world’s largest multinationals and particularly Western ones.

Among its 1?000 invitation-only corporate members there is an inner circle of 100 “strategic partners” who play the key part in generating the WEF’s insights and agenda-setting publications.

Among these companies are two familiar (formerly) South African names: SABMiller and Old Mutual.

The WEF is not meant to represent the human race, but rather the world’s largest corporations and invited stakeholders from governments and NGOs.

That said, it is still a disproportionately European show: 36% of its delegates are Western European. Counting North American delegates, the WEF meeting will have 65% of delegates coming from the West.

About 83% of all the people attending this year are men.

These demographics nearly match the Forbes list of dollar billionaires, which is 90% male and 30% American.

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