The theme of this week's Davos Meeting is "Rethink, Redesign, Rebuild," a typically lofty call (last year's theme was "Reshaping the Post-Crisis World") to the machers and luftmenschen who gather there every year. To that transformative end, the World Economic Forum has assembled more than 70 "global agenda councils," which it describes as "multistakeholder groups composed of the most innovative and influential minds," to consider how to revamp everything from the "international monetary system" and "ocean governance" to the "role of sport in society."
While in the past the Forum's efforts to improve the state of the world—a mission added to its logo in 1997, after 26 years as a highly successful corporate networking salon—could be dismissed as mostly harmless eyewash, this latest initiative suggests that its delusions of benevolence are attaining a new and more insidious magnitude. Revenues from big-ticket corporate partnerships (as opposed to member and participation fees) have roughly doubled since 2004 and are the Forum's single biggest source of income. Partly as a result, the Forum's staff is nearly twice as big as it was five years ago, creating ever greater possibilities for all sorts of mischief.
Here's what's potentially dangerous about the Forum's worthy-sounding ventures on climate, global education, corruption, and health etc. For starters, they reflect the needs and goals of the Forum and its members, not the world. The sponsors of the Global Redesign Initiative (GRI), for example, are Qatar, Singapore, and Switzerland. Why them? Will the emerging grand master plan pay extra attention to the priorities of a sharia-bound absolute monarchy, a one-party state that bans chewing gum, and a minaret-bashing, tax-dodger-protecting bastion of chauvinism, or did those countries just happen to have some no-strings-attached money to burn? Schemes like the GRI are spawned and shaped outside the public view. The biggest job for the staff members running them is to keep the people paying the bills happy -- on even the most picayune things: changing, for example, the title of a panel a few years ago from "Sparking an Arab Renaissance" to "Toward an Arab Renaissance," because, as one then-caretaker for "our Arab constituents" put it, "sparking sounds too explosive." ("Renaissance" was also a tough sell.) To the extent that Forum staff are accountable, it is to Klaus Schwab, the legendary founder, who presides over an office culture that, according to some of its survivors, is part-Peyton Place, part-House of Borgia. Indeed, for all the Forum's professed devotion to management science and democratic values, Schwab's still-tenacious grip on his creation would be the envy of Hosni Mubarak.
The annual meeting is justly celebrated for its panels and events, which do feature some of the keenest politicians, CEOs, artists, and social entrepreneurs, and which can foster encounters that lead to great things. But those paying the freight don't come to tickle their synapses. (At one session a few years ago with meganovelists Kazuo Ishiguro, Paul Theroux, Nadine Gordimer, and Paulo Coelho, panelists almost outnumbered audience.) Nor do they necessarily come to do good. They come to make connections and do deals. Recently, for example, one arriviste electronics maker predicated its attendance on the presence of a competitor's CEO, so it could buttonhole him into no longer filing serial lawsuits. And when Jack Welch of General Electric—a notorious Davos holdout—finally agreed to attend, he was reportedly much less interested in hobnobbing with prime ministers and presidents than in scheduling an exclusive dinner with some fellow corporate titans. Perhaps if the Forum really wanted to advance the public good, it should invite Christine Varney, head of the U.S. Department of Justice's antitrust division, and her EU counterpart to prowl the Congress Center's hallways with a camera and a microphone.
Instead, abetted by celebrities like Bono and fawning journalists who wax on about whom they shared a plate of rosti with, Dr. Schwab and Company have made a handsome business out of enabling old-fashioned clubby capitalism by wrapping it in feel-good globoblather: "unprecedented multistakeholder, multimedia dialogue…look at all issues on the global agenda in a systemic, integrated and strategic way…intensify collaboration and develop innovative solutions…generate an unprecedented process of discussion and deliberation." As George Orwell tellingly observed, "When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink." The next time you hear "multistakeholder," remember that, in Davos at least, corporations hold the biggest stake.