Davos provides rare platform for pursuit of the common good

Davos 2020 postcard: what sets the forum apart is its ability to bring leaders together, writes Mina Al-Oraibi from Switzerland

A worker applies a transfer on the wall inside the Congress Center ahead of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Monday, Jan. 20, 2020. World leaders, influential executives, bankers and policy makers attend the 50th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos from Jan. 21 - 24. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
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The Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum this year kicked off for the 50th time. In some ways the world has changed dramatically since that first meeting half a century ago, and in others, not much has changed at all.

While geopolitics, technology and climate have imposed new realities, the influence of a select group of elites has been the way of the world for centuries, not just decades. And although it has become fashionable to knock Davos and criticise the “1 per cent”, as its attendees are called, ironically many of the authors of anti-Davos articles are themselves part of the elite they disparage.

The World Economic Forum does not aspire to represent the entire global population – that should be the role of the United Nations. However, it does aspire, and sometimes succeeds, to find consensus for common good in an increasingly polarised world.

The convening power of the World Economic Forum remains unparalleled, despite copycat events taking place all over the world almost every month.

What sets Davos apart is its ability to bring leaders from all types of industries, countries and backgrounds and encourage them to identify the best opportunities out there, even challenges, then come up with solutions.

Undoubtedly, many, if not most, who attend do so searching for self-interest. But equally, leaders of foundations and organisations such as UNHCR, ICRC and Oxfam attend Davos because over the four days they can build relationships that serve them for years. It is also because they know they can influence leaders who would otherwise be too busy in their day-to-day work to take the long view on pressing humanitarian issues.

Top professors from the world’s leading universities, including Yale, Oxford, Insead and beyond attend, presenting cutting-edge research and ideas. A high net worth individual attending a compelling presentation can end up providing vital funding opportunities to researchers.

I once witnessed a struggling head of an NGO that specialised in helping young people get first-rate strategic and financial advice from a partner at one of the world’s top consulting firms. Over two hours, he helped the head of the NGO reform how she was leading her organisation and plan for its expansion. Outside of Davos, that advice would have cost thousands of dollars that the NGO could not afford.

These examples are replicated hundreds of times throughout the Davos week.

Undoubtedly, the snowy slopes of the Alps can take participants far from the realities of the world they are discussing. But they are only here for a few days, some for only 48 hours. The physical detachment can in no way be a detachment from the pressing realities of the world. Certain issues will be present on the public agenda, but much more will be discussed behind closed doors, in private sessions and bilateral meetings.

At a time of broken multilateral systems and weakened leadership in many areas, the World Economic Forum continues to challenge attendees to strive for a “cohesive and sustainable world”.

The forum has set the agenda, it is up to those who have come to Davos to prove they are serious about collaboration and sustainability.