The forum was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German-born business professor at the University of Geneva. First named the "European Management Forum", it changed its name to the World Economic Forum in 1987 and sought to broaden its vision to include providing a platform for resolving international conflicts.
In the summer of 1971, Schwab invited 444 executives from Western European firms to the first European Management Symposium held in the Davos Congress Centre under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations, where Schwab sought to introduce European firms to American management practices. He then founded the WEF as a nonprofit organization based in Geneva and drew European business leaders to Davos for the annual meetings each January.
Schwab developed the "stakeholder" management approach, which attributed corporate success to managers actively taking account of all interests: not merely shareholders, clients, and customers, but also employees and the communities within which the firm is situated, including governments. Events in 1973, including the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate mechanism and the Arab–Israeli War, saw the annual meeting expand its focus from management to economic and social issues, and, for the first time political leaders were invited to the annual meeting in January 1974.
Political leaders soon began to use the annual meeting as a neutral platform. The Davos Declaration was signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, helping them turn back from the brink of war. In 1992, South African President F. W. de Klerk met with Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the annual meeting, their first joint appearance outside South Africa. At the 1994 annual meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat reached a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho.
In late 2015, the invitation was extended to include a North Korean delegation for the 2016 forum, "in view of positive signs coming out of the country," the WEF organizers noted. North Korea has not been attending the WEF since 1998. The invitation was accepted but after the January 2016 North Korean nuclear test on 6 January, the invitation was revoked, and the country's delegation was made subject to "existing and possible forthcoming sanctions." Despite protests by North Korea calling the decision by the WEF managing board a "sudden and irresponsible" move, the WEF committee maintained the exclusion because "under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue."
In 2017, the World Economic Forum in Davos attracted considerable attention when for the first time, a head of state from the People's Republic of China was invited to the alpine resort. With the backdrop of Brexit, an incoming protectionist US administration and significant pressures on free trade zones and trade agreements, President Xi Jinping defended the global economic scheme, and portrayed China as a responsible nation and a leader for environmental causes. He sharply rebuked the current populist movements that would introduce tariffs and hinder global commerce, warning that such protectionism could foster isolation and reduced economic opportunity.
Headquartered in Cologny, the forum also has offices in New York, Beijing and Tokyo. On October 10, 2016, the Forum announced the opening of its new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco. According to the Forum, the center will "serve as a platform for interaction, insight and impact on the scientific and technological changes that are changing the way we live, work and relate to one another".
The World Economic Forum strives to be impartial and is not tied to any political, partisan, or national interests. The foundation is "committed to improving the State of the World". Until 2012, it had observer status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council; it is under the supervision of the Swiss Federal Council. The foundation's highest governance body is the foundation board.
During its annual meeting, more than 2,500 participants from slightly fewer than 100 countries gather in Davos. Approximately 1,500 are business leaders, drawn from its members, 1,000 of the world's top companies. Besides these, participants included 219 public figures, including 40 heads of state or government, 64 cabinet ministers, 30 heads or senior officials of international organizations, and 10 ambassadors. More than 432 participants were from civil society, including 32 heads or representatives of non-governmental organizations, 225 media leaders, 149 leaders from academic institutions and think tanks, 15 religious leaders of different faiths, and 11 union leaders.
The foundation is funded by its 1,000 member companies, typically global enterprises with more than five billion dollars in turnover (varying by industry and region). These enterprises rank among the top companies within their industry and/or country and play a leading role in shaping the future of their industry and/or region. Membership is stratified by the level of engagement with forum activities, with the level of membership fees increasing as participation in meetings, projects, and initiatives rises. As of 2011, an annual membership costs $52,000 for an individual member, $263,000 for "Industry Partner" and $527,000 for "Strategic Partner". An admission fee costs $19,000 per person. In 2014, WEF raised annual fees by 20 percent, making the cost for "Strategic Partner" from SFr500,000 ($523,000) to SFr600,000 ($628,000).
The flagship event of the foundation is the invitation-only annual meeting held during the winter at the end of January in Davos, Switzerland, bringing together chief executive officers from its 1,000 member companies, as well as selected politicians, representatives from academia, NGOs, religious leaders, and the media in an alpine winter environment. The town is small enough to allow participants to meet anywhere outside the sessions and allows them the greatest opportunities to attend receptions organized by companies and countries. The participants are also taking part in role playing events, such as the Investment Heat Map. Informal winter meetings may have led to as many ideas and solutions as the official sessions. Approximately 2,200 participants gather for the five-day event and attend some of the 220 sessions in the official programme. The winter discussions focus around key issues of global concern (such as the globalization, capital markets, wealth management, international conflicts, environmental problems and their possible solutions).
As many as 500 journalists from online, print, radio, and television take part, with access to all sessions in the official program, some of which are also webcast. Not all the journalists are given access to all areas, however. This is reserved for white badge holders. "Davos runs an almost caste-like system of badges," according to BBC journalist Anthony Reuben. "A white badge means you're one of the delegates – you might be the chief executive of a company or the leader of a country (although that would also get you a little holographic sticker to add to your badge), or a senior journalist. An orange badge means you're just a run-of-the-mill working journalist."
All plenary debates from the annual meeting also are available on YouTube, with photographs at Flickr, and key quotes on Twitter.
In 2011, some 250 public figures (heads of state or government, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, heads or senior officials of international organizations) attended the annual meeting, including: Felipe Calderón, Robert B. Zoellick, Álvaro Uribe Vélez, Nicolas Sarkozy, Ban Ki-moon, Angela Merkel, N. Chandrababu Naidu, Ferenc Gyurcsány, François Fillon, Morgan Tsvangirai, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Min Zhu, Paul Kagame, Queen Rania of Jordan, Dmitry Medvedev, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Kevin Rudd, Barney Frank, Kofi Annan, Werner Faymann, Leonel Fernández, Jacob Zuma, Naoto Kan, Jean-Claude Trichet, and Zeng Peiyan.
Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Bono, Paulo Coelho, and Tony Blair also are regular Davos attendees. Past attendees include Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Henry Kissinger, Nelson Mandela, Raymond Barre, Julian Lloyd Webber, Sandro Salsano, Wences Casares, and Yasser Arafat.
In 2007, the foundation established the Annual Meeting of the New Champions (also called Summer Davos), held annually in China, alternating between Dalian and Tianjin, bringing together 1,500 participants from what the foundation calls Global Growth Companies, primarily from rapidly growing emerging countries such as China, India, Russia, Mexico, and Brazil, but also including quickly growing companies from developed countries. The meeting also engages with the next generation of global leaders from fast-growing regions and competitive cities, as well as technology pioneers from around the globe. The Chinese Premier has delivered a plenary address at each annual meeting.
Every year regional meetings take place, enabling close contact among corporate business leaders, local government leaders, and NGOs. Meetings are held in Africa, East Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. The mix of hosting countries varies from year to year, but consistently China and India have hosted throughout the decade since 2000.
The group's Forum of Young Global Leaders consists of 800 people chosen by the forum organizers as being representative of contemporary leadership, "coming from all regions of the world and representing all stakeholders in society", according to the organization. After five years of participation they are considered alumni.
Since 2000, the WEF has been promoting models developed by those in close collaboration with the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, highlighting social entrepreneurship as a key element to advance societies and address social problems. Selected social entrepreneurs are invited to participate in the foundation's regional meetings and the annual meetings where they may meet chief executives and senior government officials. At the Annual Meeting 2003, for example, Jeroo Billimoria met with Roberto Blois, deputy secretary-general of the International Telecommunication Union, an encounter that produced a key partnership for her organization Child helpline international.
In 2011, the World Economic Forum started a global network of people between the ages of 20 and 30 who have shown great potential for future leadership roles in society. The Community of Global Shapers, highlighting Global Shapers is a network of self-organizing local hubs based in each major city around the world. They undertake events and activities intended by the Global Shapers to generate a positive impact within their local community.
As of 11 July 2016 there are 459 Hubs with more than 6,100 Shapers.
"Thirst" is an international non-profit organisation based in Beijing, China. It was set up in 2011 through the Water Security Council of the World Economic Forum. The organization educates 14–24-year olds about the idea of embedded water, the water crisis, and sustainable water usage.
The foundation also acts as a think tank, publishing a wide range of reports. In particular, "Strategic Insight Teams" focus on producing reports of relevance in the fields of competitiveness, global risks, and scenario thinking.
The "Competitiveness Team" produces a range of annual economic reports (first published in brackets): the Global Competitiveness Report (1979) measured competitiveness of countries and economies; The Global Information Technology Report (2001) assessed their competitiveness based on their IT readiness; the Global Gender Gap Report examined critical areas of inequality between men and women; the Global Risks Report (2006) assessed key global risks; the Global Travel and Tourism Report (2007) measured travel and tourism competitiveness; the Financial Development Report (2008) aimed to provide a comprehensive means for countries to establish benchmarks for various aspects of their financial systems and establish priorities for improvement; and the Global Enabling Trade Report (2008) presented a cross-country analysis of the large number of measures facilitating trade among nations.
The "Risk Response Network" produces a yearly report assessing risks which are deemed to be within the scope of these teams, have cross-industry relevance, are uncertain, have the potential to cause upwards of US$10 billion in economic damage, have the potential to cause major human suffering, and which require a multi-stakeholder approach for mitigation.
The Global Health Initiative was launched by Kofi Annan at the annual meeting in 2002. The GHI's mission was to engage businesses in public-private partnerships to tackle HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, and health systems.
The Global Education Initiative (GEI), launched during the annual meeting in 2003, brought together international IT companies and governments in Jordan, Egypt, and India that has resulted in new personal computer hardware being available in their classrooms and more local teachers trained in e-learning. This is having a significant effect on the lives of children. The GEI model, which is scalable and sustainable, now is being used as an educational blueprint in other countries including Rwanda.
The Environmental Initiative covers climate change and water issues. Under the Gleneagles Dialogue on Climate Change, the U.K. government asked the World Economic Forum at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles in 2005 to facilitate a dialogue with the business community to develop recommendations for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This set of recommendations, endorsed by a global group of CEOs, was presented to leaders ahead of the G8 Summit in Toyako and Hokkaido held in July 2008.
The Water Initiative brings together diverse stakeholders such as Alcan Inc., the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, USAID India, UNDP India, Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), Government of Rajasthan, and the NEPAD Business Foundation to develop public-private partnerships on water management in South Africa and India.
In an effort to combat corruption, the Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI) was launched by CEOs from the Engineering and Construction, Energy and Metals, and Mining industries at the annual meeting in Davos during January 2004. PACI is a platform for peer exchange on practical experience and dilemma situations. Approximately 140 companies have joined the initiative.
The Environment and Natural Resource Security Initiative was emphasized for the 2017 meeting to achieve inclusive economic growth and sustainable practices for global industries. With increasing limitations on world trade through national interests and trade barriers, the WEF has moved towards a more sensitive and socially minded approach for global businesses with a focus on the reduction of carbon emissions in China and other large industrial nations.
On January 19th 2017, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), a global initiative to fight epidemics, was launched at the forum in Davos. The internationally funded initiative aims at securing vaccine supplies for global emergencies and pandemics, and to research new vaccines for tropical diseases, that are now more menacing. The project is funded by private and governmental donors, with an initial investment of US$460m from the governments of Germany, Japan and Norway, plus the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.
The Technology Pioneers Programme recognizes companies that are designing and developing new technologies. The award is given to 30–50 companies each year. Since 2000, Technology Pioneers have consisted of more than 400 companies from 5 continents.
The Tech Pioneers are integrated into programme activities with the objective to identify and address future-oriented issues on the global agenda in proactive, innovative, and entrepreneurial ways. By bringing these executives together with scientists, academics, NGOs, and foundation members and partners, the foundation's goal is to shed new light on how technologies may be used to address, for example, finding new vaccines, creating economic growth, and enhancement of global communication.
The Transnational Institute describes the World Economic Forum’s main purpose as:
"to function as a socializing institution for the emerging global elite, globalization’s "Mafiocracy" of bankers, industrialists, oligarchs, technocrats and politicians. They promote common ideas, and serve common interests: their own."
A study, published in the Journal of Commercial Research, investigated the sociological impact of the WEF. It concluded that the WEF do not solve issues such as poverty, global warming, chronic illness, or debt. They have simply shifted the burden for the solution of these problems from governments and business to "responsible consumers subjects: the bottom-of-the-pyramid consumer, the green consumer, the health-conscious consumer, and the financially literate consumer." They merely reframe the issues, and by so doing perpetuate them. Gore is singled out as a prime example. Gore's speeches deliberately shift focus away from the problems of unregulated markets and corporate activities to one of moral pathologies, individual greed, etc. In doing so he is actually promoting the creation of new markets, and hence perpetuating the same old problems in a new guise. New markets will follow the same patterns as the old ones because the core problem of corporate governance is never addressed.
During the late 1990s the foundation, along with the G7, World Bank, World Trade Organization, and International Monetary Fund, came under heavy criticism by anti-globalization activists who claimed that capitalism and globalization were increasing poverty and destroying the environment. Ten thousand demonstrators disrupted the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, obstructing the path of two hundred delegates to the meeting. Repeatedly, demonstrations are held in Davos (see Anti-WEF protests in Switzerland, January 2003) to protest against what have been called the meetings of "fat cats in the snow", a tongue-in-cheek term used by rock singer Bono.
After 2014, the protest movement against the World Economic Forum has largely died down, and Swiss police noted a significant decline in attending protesters, 20 at most during the meeting in 2016. While protesters are still more numerous in large Swiss cities, the protest movement itself has undergone significant change. Around 150 Tibetans and Uighurs protested in Geneva and 400 Tibetans in Bern against the visit of the Chinese president for the 2017 meeting, with subsequent confrontations and arrests.
Professor Emeritus at MIT Noam Chomsky, an American linguist and outspoken intellectual, has characterized the term "globalization" as propaganda when used in connection with trade policies advanced by the World Economic Forum:
The term “globalization” has been appropriated by the powerful to refer to a specific form of international economic integration, one based on investor rights, with the interests of people incidental. That is why the business press, in its more honest moments, refers to the “free trade agreements” as “free investment agreements” (Wall St, Journal). Accordingly, advocates of other forms of globalization are described as “anti-globalization”: and some, unfortunately, even accept this term, though it is a term of propaganda that should be dismissed with ridicule. No sane person is opposed to globalization, that is, international integration. Surely not the left and the workers movements, which were founded on the principle of international solidarity - that is, globalization in a form that attends to the rights of people, not private power systems
The dominant propaganda systems have appropriated the term 'globalization' to refer to the specific version of international economic integration that they favor, which privileges the rights of investors and lenders, those of people being incidental. In accord with this usage, those who favor a different form of international integration, which privileges the rights of human beings, become 'anti-globalist.' This is simply vulgar propaganda, like the term 'anti-Soviet' used by the most disgusting commissars to refer to dissidents. It is not only vulgar, but idiotic. Take the World Social Forum, called 'anti-globalization' in the propaganda system—which happens to include the media, the educated classes, etc., with rare exceptions. The WSF is a paradigm example of globalization. It is a gathering of huge numbers of people from all over the world, from just about every corner of life one can think of, apart from the extremely narrow highly privileged elites who meet at the competing World Economic Forum, and are called 'pro-globalization' by the propaganda system. An observer watching this farce from Mars would collapse in hysterical laughter at the antics of the educated classes.
In January 2000, a thousand protesters marched through the streets of Davos and smashed the window of the local McDonald's restaurant. The tight security measures around the campus of Davos have kept demonstrators from the Alpine resort, and most demonstrations now are held in Zürich, Bern, or Basel. The costs of the security measures, which are shared by the foundation and the Swiss cantonal and national authorities, frequently have been criticised in the Swiss national media.
Since the annual meeting in January 2003 in Davos, an Open Forum Davos, co-organized by the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, is held concurrently with the Davos forum, opening up the debate about globalization to the general public. The Open Forum has been held in the local high school every year, featuring top politicians and business leaders. It is open to all members of the public free of charge.
The annual meeting of the forum also has been decried as a "mix of pomp and platitude", and criticized for moving away from serious economics and accomplishing little of substance, particularly with the increasing involvement of NGOs that have little or no expertise in economics. Instead of a discussion on the world economy with knowledgeable experts alongside key business and political players, the annual meeting of the forum now features the top political topics of the day appearing in media, such as global climate change and AIDS in Africa.
Faculty member Steven Strauss at the Harvard Kennedy School, has raised an additional concern, pointing out that many of the WEF's strategic partners (who in return for financing the annual meeting have the ability to set the intellectual agenda for the meeting) have been convicted of serious criminal, civil, or human rights violations, raising significant issues about the forum's legitimacy as a neutral convener on certain topics.
The Public Eye Awards have been held every year since 2000. It is a counter-event to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Public Eye Awards is a public competition of the worst corporations in the world. In 2011, more than 50,000 people voted for companies that acted irresponsibly. At a ceremony at a Davos hotel, the "winners" in 2011 were named as Indonesian palm oil diesel maker, Neste Oil in Finland, and mining company AngloGold Ashanti in South Africa. According to Schweiz aktuell broadcast on 16 January 2015, a public presence during the WEF 2015, may not be guaranteed because the massively increased security in Davos. The Public Eye Award will be awarded for the last time in Davos: Public Eyes says Goodbye to Davos, confirmed by Rolf Marugg (now Landrats politician), by not directly engaged politicians, and by the police responsible.
"Davos Man" is a neologism referring to the global elite of wealthy (predominantly) men, whose members view themselves as completely "international". It is similar to the term Masters of the Universe, applied to influential financiers on Wall Street.
Davos men supposedly see their identity as a matter of personal choice, not an accident of birth. According to political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who is credited with inventing the phrase "Davos Man", they are people who "have little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the élite's global operations". In his 2004 article "Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite", Huntington argues that this international perspective is a minority elitist position not shared by the nationalist majority of the people.
John Fonte of the Hudson Institute has suggested that the transnational ideology of Davos Man represents a major challenge to Francis Fukuyama's assertion that liberal democracy represents the fulfillment of The End of History and the Last Man.
Since 2011, the World Economic Forum has been addressing its very own gender quota, to introduce at least one woman for every five senior executives that attended. With apparent success, female participation increased significantly from 9% to 15% between 2001 and 2005. In 2016, 18% of the WEF attendees were female, this number increased to 21% in 2017.
Hernando de Soto Polar of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy attributes a similar concept to Fernand Braudel, referring to it as the "bell jar". Although internationally connected, each country's elite lives in a bell jar in the sense of being out of touch with its own populace. Their isolation fosters a tendency to be oblivious to the fate of their fellow citizens.
Lawrence Summers refers to this concept as the "stateless elites", tied more to the success of the global economy than to any nation, and views it as eroding support for continuing globalization.