It is late January. There are mountains and snow. It must be
The annual meeting of the World Economic
Forum is a fixture in that calendar where news and socializing meet, where the
great, the good and the not so good mix with each other and the media. It
certainly beats events like the World Bank/IMF annual meeting with its overload
of bankers and economists. Here there are scientists and artists as well as
familiar politicians and business figures. This year there is also extra snow,
and Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac are at the top of the bill. But is that why we
As a visitor for 10 of the past 15 years,
the event has singular attractions for me. The prospect of meeting up with
scattered friends and old colleagues has a pull all of its own. Many of the same
people attend year in year out, which is comforting. The food is good, the
organization superb, and there are no big city distractions from socializing.
But as one who must be counted as a Davos
loyalist, I must say, the "World" in World Economic Forum has become something
of a misnomer. That in turn raises the question of why the event continues to
receive almost blanket news coverage for mostly unexceptional speeches and
The warped nature of the Davos globe is
illustrated by a quick count of the country-of-residence of the 500 or so
individuals who are speaking or moderating this week. The United States accounts
for 40 percent; Britain, 15 percent; and the rest of Europe, 20 percent. Add in
a few others, like Australia, and nearly 80 percent are from the Western,
South Africa gets a respectable showing,
as does the Arab world. But the rest of Africa is barely represented, and,
despite the appearance of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil makes
little mark. As for Asia, the feeble representation of dynamic Korea, rich
Japan, inventive Taiwan, fast-growing China and India, and the Asean 10 big
trading nations is remarkable. The 300 million democratic Muslims of Indonesia
and Bangladesh barely exist for the Davos world of 2005.
Of the 2,000 or so participants, only
some 450 are from the non-Western world, as are only 10 of 80 corporate
"partners," or sponsors. There is just one such partner from dynamic east Asia.
There is Nestlé and Coca Cola, Volkswagen and Siemens, Goldman Sachs, Merck and
Microsoft. But no Toyota or Canon, Samsung, Toshiba, Hutchison, LG or Acer.
The decline in Asia's presence from a few
years ago is particularly striking at a time when its role in the global economy
has become so large. The most senior Asian politicians on the list are two No.
2's from Pakistan and Malaysia. Even more striking is the low level of
participation from technology leaders from Korea, Japan and Taiwan, or of the
heads of Asian global brand names.
A decline in the willingness of Asian
companies and governments to spend the large sums required to participate
reflects a sense that the event is too dominated by Western political, corporate
and intellectual interests to be worth attending.
The decline has become self-reinforcing.
It cannot be blamed on China's attempt to establish a rival and specifically
Asian equivalent, the Boao Forum for Asia held in Hainan in April, which suffers
from being Beijing-sponsored. Nor does the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre,
Brazil, present direct competition other than for NGOs.
Poorer nations and individuals from them
often find the cost of attending Davos too steep. Despite its self-description
as "Committed to Improving the State of the World," the WEF is not a charity.
You get what you pay for.
Davos's promotion of globalization could
be much better served by its signature event. Its composition does not reflect
the political, commercial, industrial or intellectual worlds of the present, let
alone the future. Indeed, critics would argue that the composition reflects the
arrogance and complacence of the West in the face of its rapid relative decline.
That's a pity, because Davos does have the framework and the status.
But for all its faults, Davos is still
fun, especially for skiers now that there's all that snow.