The World Economic Forum is held every January in the Swiss resort of Davos. Since 1971, world leaders have travelled deliberate on the big social and economic questions of our times. Attended by politicians, Nobel Prize laureates and billionaire philanthropists, this forum has set itself the noble task to improve the state of the world.
Funded primarily by Qatari business, the December Doha Forum acts as a global platform for policy discussion. With Russian funding, the October Rhodes Forum touts as a “premier destination for globally renowned academics and policy makers” to share insights into, and solutions for, global problems. And then there are a multitude of regional dialogues including the more exclusive and secretive bodies like the Bilderburg Meetings set up to promote better understanding between the cultures of the United States and Western Europe.
What is the point of these types of gathering? Many are purely private gatherings even if they might benefit from some kind of political patronage. What impact do these international dialogues and private summits generate for better policies and for global governance?
Sometimes portrayed as convivial junkets for the world’s political elite to catch-up and pontificate before both a live and virtual audience, gatherings like Davos do have a role to play in building momentum behind policy solutions, or at least a heightened understanding of different policy perspectives and priorities across political cultures. For example, the World Economic Forum launched the Global Battery Alliance aimed at safeguarding workers, banning child labour, eradicating pollution, and promoting re-use and recycling throughout the global supply chain. Convening the relevant stakeholders to global problems through conferences like that at Davos is the first step towards developing effective and coordinated action.
Face-to-face interaction in business, politics or science is an essential but intangible ingredient in developing partnerships, joint ventures or policy coordination. Global conferences are also important venues for the big professional NGOs to launch their latest reports to international media. For policy entrepreneurs looking to promote new ideas and court patrons, for budding opinion leaders desperate to start their careers, or for Hollywood actors looking to develop reputations for seriousness, these conferences are sites with a concentration of funders and decision-makers – people who can make things happen – and who they can lobby.
While talk may be cheap, attending the Davos meeting is not – which is not to say you will get in: the World Economic Forum is invitation only. These events are full of elites of one kind or another. They have been criticised not only for arriving in private jets but also some of them for tax avoidance. In 2001, thousands of NGOs and civil society activists created the World Social Forum to counter the elitism and neoliberalism of Davos.
Convening the relevant stakeholders to global problems through conferences like that at Davos is the first step towards developing effective and coordinated action.
But there is no substitute for the networking opportunities and access to informal knowledge these forums provide. Private policy gatherings are one way to get inside the loop, to become known to and a participant in the transnational policy communities that form around pressing public matters like global food policy and global health policy or specific issues like the growing problem of space junk.
The chief executives of international organisations sometimes attend these Forums. International organisations are a vital and integral component of the institutional architecture for responding to and helping resolve our global problems. The world is replete with global public problems such as climate change, recurring financial crises, declining fish stocks and pollution of the oceans. This requires coordination between states. But negotiating treaties or creating new international organisations is a slow and cumbersome political and bureaucratic process. Global problems move at a faster pace. International summits and global forums are one way to direct concentrated attention to fast moving policy concerns. But while good for consciousness raising and public pronouncements by leaders to do something, these problems also require new institutions and instruments for global policy making.
A new breed of informal international organisation (without a treaty basis or very often without a permanent secretariat) have already emerged. This includes informal bodies like the Group of 20 and BRICs. Below the radar of public awareness, there is a blooming of global and regional public-private partnerships. A famous one is GAVI, The Vaccine Alliance delivering immunisation to communities in low income countries, which was bankrolled by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Yet solutions also beget problems. Without central global sovereign authority, a lot of duplication and bureaucratic fragmentation results from events like these. Lines of authority are opaque and accountability is hard to trace. These unintended outcomes become agenda items for the next global gathering. Davos is a global convenor par excellence. But while transnational dialogues present themselves as civic educational exercises, it’s hard to tell if any of these meetings really help change anything.
Feature image credit: “Photography of people inside room during daytime” by John Mark-Smith. Public domain via Unsplash.