For years, I’ve been a silent observer of the World Economic Forum (WEF), reading about it on the internet, editing reams of copy on it or watching it on TV. But one question has always remained in my mind. What drives thousands of people each year to a small alpine town in Switzerland to live out Professor Klaus Schwab’s dream, who founded the forum in 1971?
After traveling almost 13,000 kilometers from the tip of Africa to Davos, a semblance of an answer began to emerge.
The answer was not to be found in the sub-zero temperatures that left the entire body numb with cold nor in Responsive and Responsible Leadership, the theme driving the WEF Annual Meeting 2017. Instead it was to be found in the Congress Centre, or on the streets and hotels of Davos-Klosters.
It was to be found among the people – the 3,000 delegates that gathered for the event and the thousands of support staff.
The draw card – the opportunity to mingle and be seen with the most influential and powerful people in the world. Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, crossed my path several times at Davos. Mauritius President Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, after sharing her plans for attracting investors to her country on a cold winter’s night, agreed to a photo with me.
Singer and songwriter Shakira shared her passion for early child development advising us that “today’s babies will drive tomorrow’s business. Their capacity to contribute will shape tomorrow’s societies, will solve tomorrow’s problems”.
Anne-Sophie Mutter, one of the world’s most famous violinists, entertained the crowds. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Finance Minister of Nigeria and Board Chair of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, discussed plans to immunize up to 300 million more children all over the world by 2020.
The allure of Davos is that it gives delegates a platform to discuss the most pressing issues of our time, such as the refugee crisis, climate change and can-women-have-it-all?
It offers an arena to do business deals with the richest, to form new contacts and exchange business cards. It provides purveyors a glimpse into where the world stands, shifts in geopolitics and the ironies and contradictions of the world. It allows those present to see who controls the vast majority of wealth and intellectual capital and how this has changed.
WEF 2017 was a world in which the largest bankers, infamous for the financial crisis, such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, could be heard offering their views on Trump making America and stock markets great again, while Ugandan-born Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director at Oxfam, was decrying that eight men own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity, according to a new report published by the agency.
It was an arena that brought into stark contrast the plight of Africa, and the developed world when simultaneously it hosted a panel discussion with CNBC Africa on Powering Africa, while meters away, some of the leading minds in technology were debating what role artificial intelligence should play in our futures; and that the 48 countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa generate almost the same amount of electricity as Spain.
Davos 2017 was a gathering where UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May declared that Britain’s decision to leave the European Union was not a rejection of its friends in Europe but simply a vote to restore its “parliamentary democracy and national self-determination. A vote to take control and make decisions for ourselves”. Juxtapose this with Xi Jinping’s attendance. Jinping, the first Chinese president to attend WEF, led the country’s largest-ever delegation to the ski-resort town to make a statement that China wants to assume a global leadership role as the world struggles with isolationism, populism and polarization. In a speech at the event, he stated: “It is true that economic globalization has created new problems, but this is no justification to write economic globalization off completely. Rather, we should adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.”
– Vanek is news editor of CNBC Africa and CNBCAfrica.com; she lives and breathes business and financial news, and is now slowly developing a passion for artificial intelligence.