High up in the Swiss Alps close to the Austrian border lies the picturesque but remote ski resort of Davos. This is where, every January, a large gathering of the world’s richest and most influential people meet for the World Economic Forum (WEF). It’s a summit, as its strapline puts it, that’s ‘committed to improving the state of the world’.
In defiance of this strapline, protests, campaigns, demonstrations and populist opprobrium surround the event, emanating from an impressive array of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The result, in some quarters, is that ‘Davos’ ranks as a four-letter word. Similarly, ‘Davos Man’ has become an epithet for greedy, narcissistic individuals who control the global capitalist machine for their own selfish ends.
While some evidence may support this characterisation, the true picture is fuller. Many NGO leaders no longer stand outside the venue’s ring of steel. They are now on the conference podium. One of them, Winnie Byanyima, is even co-chairing the Forum. She is the CEO of Oxfam, an NGO promoting the message, however contentious, that global inequality is growing and the world’s wealthiest 1% will soon own more than the rest of the world’s population.
But it’s not only Winnie Byanyima who fails to fit the Davos Man stereotype. So too does the original Davos Man, the German-born business leader turned academic Professor Klaus Schwab, the Forum’s founder and Executive Chairman. Public discourse owes to him such breakthrough concepts as the multi-stakeholder approach, public-private partnerships, social entrepreneurship, and corporate global citizenship.
Schwab’s thought leadership is matched by his civil society activism, as founder not only of the WEF but also of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, the Forum of Young Global Leaders, and the Global Shapers Community. To impartial observers, the plethora of honorary doctorates he’s received is well deserved yet leave his humility intact. To them it is no wonder that other true Davos Men are drawn to his gatherings. One of them is Bill Gates, who having put a computer in so many of the world’s homes now seeks to rid them of infectious disease.
Davos Man is a straw man. Real Davos Men are ordinary women and men who have the audacity to challenge rigid demarcations of what is of private and public concern. Inspired by a vision that transcends such barriers, they fight to align interests for the sake of the common good. Whether or not on icy Alpine slopes, that is a fray worth joining.