Kate Andrews Kate Andrews

The real problem with Davos and the World Economic Forum

A protester takes to the streets of Davos (Credit: Getty images)

The political and financial elite are gathered in Davos in Switzerland for the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) annual meeting, which starts today. Yet before the conference has even kicked off, the narrative around it has already been crafted: the WEF will have to pivot away from the free-market and globalist outlook Davos usually promotes, and switch its focus to inequality instead. In a cost-of-living crisis, images of the glamorous Swiss resort and delegates quaffing champagne are not a good look. 

This problem was pre-empted by many. Neither Rishi Sunak nor his chancellor Jeremy Hunt will be attending this year’s conference (trade secretary Kemi Badenoch and business secretary Grant Shapps will be representing the government instead). In fact, only one G7 leader is expected to show up at Davos: German chancellor Olaf Scholz. Meanwhile, the lavish parties and extravagant features that have become synonymous with the conference are expected to be scaled back. The hope is that those attending the conference won’t appear ignorant to the current plight of the average onlooker. Oxfam is already out of the gates with its annual report on inequality, focusing this year on wealth gains since the pandemic and the cost-of-living crunch.

Last year’s Davos saw private jet emissions quadruple

But if there’s an issue with Davos’s image, it’s nothing new: the WEF’s annual knees-up has always had an image problem, and for a good reason. It is the picture-perfect example, not of free market capitalism, but of crony capitalism. Anyone who is seriously interested in liberalising markets – both to improve trade and to create the best condition for rising living standards – knows the last way to go about this is to put the world’s politicians and big business leaders in a resort town together. The deals which are struck between government and international companies – that can buy their way into the event – are far more likely to result in protectionist policies to keep the major players on top, making it harder for start-ups and smaller businesses to compete.

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