Where billionaires go to change the world

On top: Membership of WEF costs $60,000, plus the ticket price for the event. © Getty

Can global elites solve the planet’s problems? This week, billionaires and politicians will discuss economics on a snowy Swiss mountain — but trust in their message is lower than ever.

Look closely, and the themes for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) offer a potted history of the modern era. In 2002, four months after 9/11, thousands of business leaders and politicians met to discuss “Leadership in Fragile Times”. In 2009, after the economic crash, it was “Shaping the Post-Crisis World”.

Every January, the week-long event takes place in Davos, a luxury Swiss mountain resort. Around half the attendees are from private companies (members of the WEF are drawn from the world’s largest 1,000 firms).

World leaders are also invited, along with NGOs and celebrities who represent the “spirit of Davos” (such as Cate Blanchett and Elton John). It is known as much for its lavish parties as it is for its earnest panel discussions.

This year’s event officially begins tomorrow. The theme? “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World.” The most surprising guest? US president Donald Trump, who won the White House with a fiercely anti-globalisation message that is anathema to the image Davos tries to project.

According to a report by the WEF last week, the world is entering a “critical period of intensified risks” thanks to a planet “on the brink”, a “deteriorating geopolitical landscape”, and inequality. The greatest of these risks are: “extreme weather events” and “weapons of mass destruction”.

Hundreds of events will take place over the course of the week to dissect these issues. According to WEF’s global head of programming, it is time for attendees to enter “listening mode” in order to “really work together” to find solutions.

There are signs that some of the world’s elites are ready to listen. Last week, the boss of the world’s largest investment firm, BlackRock, wrote an open letter arguing that companies must make a “positive contribution to society”. Three months after the #MeToo movement took off, it will also be the first year that Davos is chaired by an all-female team.

But can the billionaires of Davos really change anything?

Money, money, money

Of course not, say some. It was wealthy corporations and ineffective politicians who caused problems like inequality and climate change in the first place. Why should anyone trust them to solve those things now? In the end, money is only interested in more money. It is ordinary people, not the greedy 0.01%, who will change things.

That is unrealistic, argue others. Big problems need big solutions — and however you feel about them, Davos attracts the most powerful and influential people in the world. The average wealth of those speaking this year will be $414.3m, and there will be 70 heads of state. If these people cannot figure out how to change the world, no one can.

You Decide

  1. Do you trust the world’s wealthiest people to solve its problems?
  2. Where do the biggest changes come from: the top or the bottom?

Activities

  1. Rank what you think the biggest risks are to the world in 2018.
  2. Imagine you have been invited to speak at Davos on behalf of the world’s teenagers. Your theme is a “fractured world”. Write the speech that you would deliver, and take it in turns to perform it for your class.

Some People Say...

“In the long run men inevitably become the victims of their wealth.”

Herbert Croly

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
This is the 48th year of the WEF holding an annual meeting. It officially opens tomorrow, when the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, will give the opening address. On Friday, Donald Trump is scheduled to give the closing speech, although these plans may be scuppered by the current US government shutdown. Around 2,500 people are expected to attend.
What do we not know?
What Trump will say in his speech if he does attend. Last week he told The Wall Street Journal that he was going to be a “cheerleader” for the USA and to talk about its economic success. We also do not know how those attending Davos will respond to Trump. Although he railed against elites and global trade deals in his presidential campaign, it is worth noting that he is also very wealthy.

Word Watch

Davos
At 1,560m above sea level, Davos is the highest town in Europe.
NGOs
Non-governmental organisations with a social or humanitarian mission, but independent of government.
Inequality
Last January, Oxfam revealed that the world’s eight richest people have the same amount of wealth as its poorest four billion.
Greatest
Weapons of mass destruction were considered the risk with the highest potential impact, extreme weather events the most likely.
BlackRock
The assets management company invests more than $6 trillion and has offices in 30 different countries.
#MeToo
The hashtag was first proposed as a way of sharing stories of abuse in 2006. However, it gained prominence after the allegations of assault against Harvey Weinstein in October.
All-female
The co-chairs include Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund; Sharan Burrow, head of the International Trade Union Confederation; and Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway.
$414.3m
According to WealthInsight.com. It is worth noting that a few multi-billionaire speakers like Bill Gates bring up the average net worth considerably.

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