Formed in 1971 as the European Management Symposium, the World Economic Forum has broadened its purview considerably, stating that its mission is "improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas." A daunting mandate, to be sure, but when all is said and done, is more said than done?
SEE: What Is International Trade?
The Alpine town of Davos, Switzerland, brings together every January an A-list of glitterati, policy wonks, government and finance officialdom, investment grandees, non-governmental organizations and prominent figures in technology, the arts and culture. Its accomplishments would appear to play out in the manner of a slow and deliberate distillation. Issues within the remit of the Forum are topical, weighty and require much study and debate.
For example, resolving the problems left in the wake of the 2007-2009 global financial boondoggle in such a way that they do not recur will take time, and may even be unobtainable. Given the complexity of such myriad issues, arriving at solutions to them requires extensive research and analysis in an attempt to understand and reconcile often disparate interests. Various seers who've attended this pow-wow deem it an event of immense anthropological interest, given its wide berth. Davos seeks to make the world a better place, but change comes slowly. It is, after all, a convocation rather than a revolution. In this sense, its mission would appear to be at odds with the more rambunctious mission of the Occupy movement.
The Davos Men
The strength of Davos is its ability to articulate and analyze in-depth, salient issues that encourage dialog and invite further inquiry. Many of the greatest minds in their respective fields undertake this effort. An apt motto for the meetings would be "make haste slowly" as their participants lay out a blueprint upon which initiatives are built and revised. The process is multifaceted and elaborate. Its output is of critical use to key decision makers.
Consider one report in particular, Global Risks 2012. A collaborative effort between the World Economic Forum, Marsh & McLennan, Swiss Reinsurance Company, Wharton Center for Risk Management and Zürich Financial Services, the work takes a holistic view of risk assessment and management. Risk is parsed into five categories: economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological, each with particular drivers analyzed in terms of the likelihood of their occurrence.
Furthermore, the critical inflection points where these domains interface are considered as well. Economic dystopia, governmental mismanagement of market volatility and climate change, and the seamy side of connectivity that leaves the world all the more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, were key topics from the report. Global leadership would do well to ponder the implications of such wide-ranging conclusions.
Work of such magnitude is standard issue at the Davos meetings. The process is dynamic. Various topics have taken the spotlight over the years based upon their relevance. In 1974, the energy crisis was prominent, and the subject of energy use and alternatives continues to be a concern. In the late 1970s, Arab-European business was high on the agenda, as was the need to mend fences between the Middle East and the West in the wake of the 1973 oil embargo. Indeed, the West and Islam continue to seek greater mutual understanding.
In 2012, resolution and reconciliation in the shadow of the European sovereign debt debacle was the hot topic. In contrast to the gloomy mien of European governments and bankers, the Americans appeared cautiously optimistic and more in deal-making mode than in the past couple of years. The mood in emerging markets economies has been upbeat as well, as many of them are directing trade among themselves and focusing on internal growth, rather than traditional export markets where growth is less in evidence.
The challenges of currency regimes have been recurring ones. Consider the gold standard, the failed Latin and Scandinavian monetary unions of the nineteenth century, the successful ones such as the CFA franc, the Eastern Caribbean dollar and the proposed ECOWAS union slated for 2015.
The Bottom Line
History repeats itself, though with nuances. The story is never entirely the same. Indeed, in this respect the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum proves its mettle through its ability to grapple with present day issues, as well as to foresee the dark clouds upon the horizon and the opportunities that may lie within them.
To better understand the enormity of the issues addressed, learn about the diverse mix of the primary categories and sub-topics taken up at this year's summit by visiting the Forum's website.