Category Archives: Davos

Posts made either in Davos or about the Davos Annual Meeting

Mandela’s first trip to Davos

Nelson Mandela at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, 1992. Photo: World Economic Forum

Nelson Mandela at the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, 1992. Photo: World Economic Forum

A key part of what transformed Davos from a place where third-rate ministers from second-rate countries gathered with a crowd of largely European business executives to a place where major political leaders flocked to be with a truly global business elite was the very real tie that was forged with Nelson Mandela in the 1990s.

There are two wonderful stories from when Mandela first came to Davos in 1992, less than two years after he was freed from prison.

Public figures entered the Kongresszentrum in Davos through a side, lower entrance, rather than the main entrance on Promenade. The entrance to the building’s kitchens was right near this VIP entrance, and when Mandela first entered the building and walked past the kitchens, the sliding doors sprang open. Unlike countless hundreds of other public figures before and after him, Mandela didn’t just walk by. Instead, he plunged into the kitchens, shaking the hand of every one of the workers.

The second incident from 1992 is a story I heard Mandela tell himself. In 1992, the economic policy of the African National Congress was for the nationalization of major industries. In Davos, Mandela was sitting next to another political leader at a dinner, telling him about the ANC’s economic plans. The other leader listened politely and, when Mandela was finished, looked at him and, through his translator, said, “I have to tell you that we tried that, and it doesn’t work.”

“The person who said that to me,” Mandela said, “was Li Peng, Premier of China.”*

Personal postscript: Many of my best memories of ten years with the World Economic Forum are of South Africa, newly liberated and in economic transition. Largely through the efforts of Fred Sicre, who was in charge of Africa and the Middle East for WEF in those years, the Forum developed an amazing South African connection.

Through my work with the Forum I met loads of powerful and remarkable people (the two sets are definitely not congruent). The only person I wished I had a photo of with me is Mandela. It would be like having a photo of yourself with Abe Lincoln. I blew it, in this case.

At some point in the late ’90s, I was having dinner in New York with a friend from university shortly after I had returned from a South African trip. We ran into another friend, who was also a journalist, who mentioned he’d just been in South Africa. “Oh,” I said, “what were you doing there?” “I’ve been spending the last several months with Mandela, helping him write his autobiography,” he said. Richard Stengel didn’t say that as a boast, but it remains the greatest example of one upmanship I’ve ever encountered.

* To my mind, inviting Li, still fresh in the memory as the butcher of Tienanmen Square, was a terrible thing for the World Economic Forum to do at the time. But it certainly helped the institution in its relationship with China.

A few truths about Davos

It’s the time of year when everywhere I turn, I read tweets and posts about Davos1, which was a huge part of my life for ten years. I’m a long way from the mountain top these days, but I find that too many people don’t understand some basic truths about the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum.2

The Forum’s mission

The Forum’s often-stated mission is “Committed to Improving the State of the World”. There were moments that a few other subversives and I used to say that it was a bit like the signs you see entering a London borough: Croydon: The Brighter Borough.3 Sounds nice, but meaningless.

I don’t think — and, in the day, I didn’t think — that’s quite fair. The Forum is truly committed to improving the state of the world, and some of the corporations that are members are wholly on board with that mission. The problem is that, for all the good intentions, and plenty of good actions, an organization that is at heart a grouping of the world’s largest corporations isn’t necessarily in the best position to improve the state of the world, particularly in an era of the Arab Spring and Occupy.

The Forum does its best to mitigate this, inviting a decent share of civil society leaders and trade unionists. But just as the academics and Nobel laureates that grace the Forum are, in the memorable words of one of the most distinguished, the dancing bears at the circus, the non-corporate leaders in Davos are on the fringe, not at the center of action.

When I first went to Davos in 1993, then-Viscount Rothermere (who was the ultimate owner of Euromoney PLC, the joint venture partner with WEF in World Link, the magazine I ran) told me that the real mission of the Forum was much simpler. Don’t Offend Anyone.

What it means for the program

If your goal is to offend no one, you have a host of problems. Some are obvious. Taiwan and Tibet shall never pass your lips (WEF is hardly alone in this constraint). Plenty of rotten presidents and prime ministers get welcomed with open arms.

That comes with the territory. More difficult is the need to put corporate leaders on panels with relatively little regard to whether they have any original ideas, or any ability to talk about them. The dark, dirty secret you learn when you run the program at Davos is that the vast majority of CEOs have nothing to say. That doesn’t mean they are bad CEOs. It’s just that there is no correlation between being a successful business leader and having interesting ideas and the ability to express them.

It isn’t just people. Offending no one also constricts the range of things you can talk about. After I left the Forum, I was still persona grata for about two years. My successors running the program would solicit ideas from me. I remember developing, with considerable enthusiasm, the idea of a session called “How Much is Too Much?” It would look at whether a cap on CEO salaries, or perhaps on the multiple of salaries to average wages, would create healthier organizations. My contention was most CEOs were more interested in power than money. Perhaps you could posit significant salaries for top executives, but taking the CEO post would mean a reduction in salary in return for power. I think most would take that deal. The session could also examine broader issues that are big for people researching the economics of happiness. Does more money mean more happiness (after a certain point, the answer seems to be no)? Is there a point which is really too much? And so on. Lots to talk about, and it’s the kind of thing that would have created a stir. That session idea didn’t go anywhere.4

Not too far ahead

It isn’t just about ruffling feathers. Part of the genius of Klaus Schwab, the founder of WEF, is to recognize that his market is actually very middle of the road. There was a lot of enthusiasm in my day for having Phil Collins come to perform. If the WEF gets too far ahead of its crowd, it falls flat. The secret is to be five minutes ahead, not five months or five years.

So fast-moving events, like the beginnings of the Arab Spring one year ago, leave the Forum flat footed. So, too, do the kinds of faint rumblings that might just turn into something significant, but could also be a bust. The Forum isn’t about weak signals or the long tail. It navigates skillfully along the tides of conventional wisdom, but with just slight deviances in the course so that there is the appearance of freshness and discovery.

I was fortunate enough to be involved with Davos in years of plenty, when we invited around 300 so-called Forum Fellows — the academics and other experts — and really tried to push the boundaries of the program (with plenty of encouragement from Klaus). After I left, with the dotcom crash and then 9/11, the Forum decided that more sobriety was needed in the program. CEOs needed to be able to show that they were coming to Davos to discuss important things, not frivolity.

I argued unsuccessfully with my ex-colleagues that it was precisely the off-the-track ideas and sessions that were most valuable in Davos. Another session on financial architecture, the Doha round, China’s rise, or networked societies would probably add very little to the discussion. But Davos had carved out a place where CEOs were suddenly tossed into a discussion on death (my all-time favorite session), the meaning of history or endangered languages. Perhaps those could fire some disused synapses and spark something new.

Prosperity has returned to Davos and the Forum. The staff of the Forum has grown at least threefold. There’s a decidedly engineering-like approach to building the program now, with a cascade of agenda councils and meetings. I was, and am, more attuned to artisanal production. To my eyes, all the additional resources and grand processes has just pressed the program flatter and flatter. Davos continues to attract absolutely extraordinary people. But they are forced into discussions where the unremarkable is the norm.

Outside the Congress Center

When I first became involved with Davos, Maria Livanos Cattaui was the power behind the scenes, the ferocious number two to Klaus. Maria had the licence, or so it seemed, to be tough with the corporate members. The number of events and the scale of events outside the Congress Center was strictly controlled. WEF had the conviction that once you let outside events grow, it would diminish what happened inside the Congress Center.

Maria was brutally removed in 1996 and replaced by Claude Smadja (who was brutally removed himself five years later)5, that tough line on outside events remained largely intact. But the tenor of the age — the go-go years of the late 1990s — began to erode that policy. Big outside parties began to proliferate. More and more started to happen outside the Congress Center. Part of the core philosophy of the Forum — that if you had a white badge, you were equal and welcome to attend everything — began to crumble.

I’m ancient history, and I haven’t been to the Annual Meeting since 2002. But friends that continue to go tell me the corporate takeover has accelerated dramatically in recent years. Bigger, more elaborate events happen outside the Congress Center. There are more and more class distinctions, even if you have a white badge.

All that said, Davos remains a wonderful privilege. If I were ever invited again, I’d be on the next plane to Zurich (fat chance, I know). I had some of the best experiences of my life working on Davos, fighting against the constraints and trying to make something out of the fantastic raw materials at hand. I recognize the limitations, but I continue to wish that WEF aimed higher.


1 It’s Davos to everyone now, of course. For many years, the World Economic Forum fought against the nomenclature, insisting that it was the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, which happened to be in a place called Davos. It could be anywhere! (In 2002, it was in New York City. The only time outside Davos.) As recently as a couple of years ago, this blog game up second or third when you did a Google search for Davos, behind only the town of Davos itself.

2 There are exceptions. Felix Salmon sees things clearly. Dani Rodrik, a regular in my day, points to his recollections, which still ring true.

3 Croydon’s motto is actually Sanitate Crescimus (may we grow in health). Somewhere in my memory there was a brighter borough.

4 Perhaps you don’t think much of that session idea. I still like it.

5 There’s certainly a story to be written about the internal politics of the Forum. Not pretty.

Patrolling the DFZ

Financial Times: Messages from the mount.

As an aside, I suspect that — despite the title — this blog will be a largely Davos-free zone (DFZ) this week. If I see something truly dramatic, where my comments might add something, I’ll take note. But I’m more preoccupied with things in the East Bay and my own business than with events on the Zauberberg.

I’m certain, however, that my many friends that still go to Davos will have a wonderful time.

The origins of blogging Davos

I saw the other day that Dave Winer laid claim to being the first Davos blogger. I’m pretty certain I have prior art.

Two things strike me looking back at those posts from six years ago. First, although blogging was in its infancy, in Davos we had Dave, myself and Dan Gillmor, all blogging away. That was definitely ahead of the curve.

And something that both Dave and the World Economic Forum can be proud of is that Dave was invited to Davos as a media leader. This gave him access to a special program for media folk (not the lowly orange badge, working journalists, but the exalted editors and columnists). I remember a media lunch with Bill Gates where Dave asked a series of questions about RSS and SOAP. There’s no doubt that Dave was the first weblogger invited to cover an event as a weblogger — over four years in advance of the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

A blog for everyone in Davos

Way back in 1999, before the 2000 Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Dave Winer urged me to provide every participant in Davos with a blog. It was a great idea, but so far ahead of its time that I couldn’t come close to persuading my colleagues at the Forum to do it.

Well, ideas come around. The Forum has taken a laudatory step in the right direction for this year’s Annual Meeting. “Every participant of the Annual Meeting – ranging from business leaders to political leaders, heads of NGOs, religious leaders academics and journalists – will be asked to join the Forum blog. The World Economic Forum was the first international organization to set up a blog at the Annual Meeting in January 2005 and the upcoming Annual Meeting will see a significant development in the experiment. All of the more than 2,000 participants, including presidents and prime ministers, will be asked to provide at least one posting for the blog.”

I think that’s great. It would be even better if every participant had their own blog, rather than be aggregated on the one, central Forum blog. Still, huzzahs all round.

WEF and intelligent design

I’ve certainly made bad editing mistakes in my time. I still cringe when I recall flipping the axes labels on a graph accompanying a Paul Krugman article (in his MIT academic, pre-columnist days). But I’ve just had a chance to read the draft program for Davos 2006, and one howler really stands out.

At least, I hope it’s an editing error.

There’s a planned session entitled “Chance, Necessity and God: The Fuss about Intelligent Design”. Here’s the program’s session description:

Religious conservatives have found a new way to promote the teaching of evolutionary theory in the US through the concept of “intelligent design”. Recent polls indicate that over 60% of Americans feel creationism should be taught alongside evolution.

1) Why are these efforts striking such a chord in the US?
2) Is the reaction of the scientific community overblown?
3) Does discussion about this “controversy” belong in the schools?

Now, this is from a draft program. But how could someone have typed that so-called intelligent design is a way to “promote” the teaching of evolutionary theory? Did they mean to write “destroy” and found “promote” was an okay substitute?

If this were just an internal World Economic Forum document, I wouldn’t write about it, and I almost surely wouldn’t have seen it. But it’s the draft program they send to major sponsors of Davos. (Of course, in Forum speak, no one is anything so tawdry as a sponsor. They are “strategic partners”.) The sneak peak of an early stage of the program is part of what your SFr500,000 gets you. I wonder if any of the strategic partners raised the alarm on this session.


One of the glitches that happened in moving Davos Newbies to WordPress is some of the very earliest posts were shunted into draft status, rather than published.

I’m sure a clever PHP scripter could do something nifty to transfer them all back. But I’m doing it manually. And it has occasioned a wave of nostalgia. It’s been ages since I read the stuff I wrote in January 2000 about Davos (depending when you read this, only some of the posts are back up). In some ways, they are my version of Proust’s madeleine.

Davos Newbies Home

There’s a Davos development that I have mixed feelings about. In its origins, the World Economic Forum brought together leaders from business, government and academia. That was a nice, simple concept: business and government need a dialogue, and the academics add true expertise (although some of them felt a bit like dancing bears, available for entertainment).

In the early ’90s, the Forum revised its previously super-restrictive attitude towards the media. In part, this was a reaction to a clamour from the press about admission. But on a constructive level, it was because of a belief that the media would provide transparency and openness to the proceedings. The Forum most definitely is not a cabal, and it certainly did not want to seem such. So now there was a fourth pillar in the media.

In the late ’90s, a new group started to intrude. For brevity, I’ll call it Hollywood. There are two “Hollywood” segments I have no problem with: studio heads and the like (the entertainment business is a fascinating, global industry) and true artists (I’d love to integrate a Coppola into a variety of Davos sessions). But my tolerance stops at stars who, truth to tell, are invited purely because they are stars.

Despite a lot of effort, the Forum has never gotten that far with real stars. They’re busy filming, or just not interested, or they expect a level of star treatment that just isn’t possible (although the Forum is willing to lay on certain star perks that no one else in Davos gets). This year in Davos, there are, however, a number of star-like people where I just don’t understand why they are there.

Bono, who is coming, is great. He has been a major figure in the debt relief movement. But why Martha Stewart? Oprah Winfrey? Am I missing something?

Davos Newbies Home

One of the main stories of Davos 2000 was the world post-Seattle. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) had a higher profile in Davos than in past years, and business participants seemed far more interested in engaging with the NGOs.

One of the NGOs “outside” the Congress Centre was Berne Declaration, a group that, among other activities, has decided to monitor the World Economic Forum and Davos.

Berne Declaration has just issued its report on Davos. I’ve posted it as a story without editing or comment. But I’ll offer a brief comment here.

Unlike the WTO or any other UN organisation, the Forum is a private foundation, responsive to its members — the world’s foremost 1,000 companies. But we recognise that meeting our goal of “improving the state of the world” means certain responsibilities. We need to be inclusive, rather than exclusive. We want to be open and transparent. There is nothing new with our inviting NGOs and trade unions into Davos: Klaus Schwab invited them to the first Davos 30 years ago.

I welcome the scrutiny of Berne Declaration, and for the health of Davos we need to keep an active dialogue with NGOs (or at least those that want a dialogue, rather than those that want to trash the local McDonald’s).

My personal view is that free trade is a very good thing for the world economy, and particularly for the developing world. I find it ironic that Berne Declaration should castigate president Zedillo of Mexico, who is the democratically elected leader of a major developing country. I don’t think he’s been duped about free trade (and I know I can expect responses about how the PRI in Mexico is minimally democratic. You can substitute almost any elected head of state globally for Zedillo).

On globalisation, Davos of all places has been central in promoting the debate about how to ensure that the benefits of globalisation (which is a fact that is not going to go away) are spread widely. The inequalities that have attended globalisation “part one”, to pick up a phrase from Davos 2000, need not be the model for globalisation part two.

It is the society that matters, not the economy. That’s what we hope is one of the major themes participants should take away from Davos 2000.