The World Economic Forum is grappling with an image problem

The World Economic Forum is trying to solve an image problem.

Nearly 2,500 world leaders from business, politics and civil society are expected to attend a rare spring version of Davos this week.

The annual meeting will see movers and shakers gather in the luxurious alpine ski resort of Davos in Switzerland for five days of conversation on issues including Covid-19, Russia’s war in Ukraine and the climate crisis.

The event’s organizers had postponed the meeting from its traditional January slot for security reasons amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, in a welcome boost for local residents, the forum’s first in-person event is now back after a two-year hiatus.

The theme of this year’s event is “History at a Turn: Government Policies and Business Strategies”.

“It means a lot to us. It means a lot to all of Switzerland,” Samuel Rosenast, a spokesman for the local tourism board, said in an interview with CNBC’s Tom Chitty.

Rosenast said the event was “incredibly important” for those who reside in Europe’s highest city, estimating the resort could see a windfall of around 70 million Swiss francs ($72 million) just this week.

“Every company is in contact with the World Economic Forum. People know how important it is,” Rosenast said. “Most people here are looking forward to the World Economic Forum. They are happy that it is taking place here again this year.”

“The symbol of a failed era”

That’s not to say everyone is thrilled to see the return of the world’s economic and political elite to the Swiss Alps. The event has been heavily criticized in recent years for being disconnected, inefficient and irrelevant.

Three years ago, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman went viral during a Davos panel when he exposed billionaires for tax evasion. In a clip that has now been viewed nearly 11 million times, Bregman said a global failure to effectively tackle tax avoidance was the main cause of inequality.

“I feel like I’m at a firefighters conference and no one is allowed to talk about water,” Bregman said at the time. “It’s not rocket science…we need to talk about taxes. That’s it. Taxes, taxes, taxes.”

The Swiss ski resort of Davos hosts the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

Harold Cunningham | Getty Images News | Getty Images

More recently, protesters, activists and people on the frontlines of inequality have sought to challenge the WEF for its “empty rhetoric”, accusing Davos of representing “a symbol of a failed era” that should be left behind.

A report released Monday by global charity Oxfam found that 573 people have become new billionaires during the coronavirus pandemic – at the rate of one every 30 hours. The brief, titled ‘Profiting from Pain’, predicts that an additional 263 million people will fall into extreme poverty this year at the rate of 1 million people every 33 hours.

“Billionaires are arriving in Davos to celebrate an incredible increase in their fortunes. The pandemic and now the sharp increases in food and energy prices have, quite simply, been a boon for them,” said Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International.

“Meanwhile, decades of progress on extreme poverty are now being reversed and millions are facing impossible increases in the cost of simply staying alive.”

In his youth, Philipp Wilhelm was one of those who protested against the annual gathering of billionaires and political leaders in the city where he was born. Now, however, Wilhelm is the mayor of Davos, and his goal is to organize a successful reunion.

“I protested at the annual meeting because, for me, it was important to express that it is really crucial that we solve this climate crisis. And we have to make the world fairer,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm said he took part in protests because he felt it was essential to ensure that everyone who arrives in Davos “gets the message that it is really important to solve these problems”.

“Davos Man” has itself become synonymous with a stereotypical figure of a typical Forum attendee – rich and powerful, perhaps out of touch, but mostly representative of the global elite.

Fabrice Cofrini | AFP | Getty Images

Wilhelm said he – and the WEF – have changed their stance since his protest days, adding that he believes he can influence policy more effectively in his current role.

Asked if it was concerning that criticism of the WEF has become too closely associated with Davos given that the city itself has become largely interchangeable with the forum, Wilhelm replied: “No, I don’t mind not at all.”

“I think it’s interesting that people know of Davos as a place where people meet and talk – and I mean it should be controversial. There should be a discussion about the right way to improve the state of the world,” Wilhelm said.

Davos 2022 is “a landmark in time”

“The work of the forum is ongoing. The meeting is a landmark in time,” said Saadia Zahidi, chief executive of the World Economic Forum.

“What we have done over the last two and a half years – even if it has not been visible through a particular meeting – is a body of work that tries to reduce inequalities and at the same time bring about change to address one of the greatest existential risks we all face, namely climate change.”

When asked if rising income inequality has become a particular issue for the forum, Zahidi replied, “Inequality is a problem for the world. I think we know that societies that don’t fight inequality will grow slower.

“And so, there has to be an effort to tackle inequality. Now what does that do? Better education, better skills, better jobs, addressing issues like taxation and changing of the nature of our economies so that they actually work for people and not just a few,” Zahidi said. “That’s going to be at the center of next week’s agenda.”

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