The World Economic Forum was founded in January 1971 when a group of European business leaders met under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations. German-born Klaus Schwab, then Professor of Business Policy at the University of Geneva, chaired the gathering, which took place in Davos, Switzerland. The organization was subsequently incorporated as a not-for-profit Foundation.
Professor Schwab’s inspiration for creating the Foundation was his book –Moderne Unternehmensführung im Maschinenbau – in which the stakeholder principle was first defined. This concept states that the management of an enterprise is not only accountable to its shareholders but must also serve the interests of all stakeholders, including employees, customers, suppliers and, more broadly, government, civil society and any others who may be affected or concerned by its operations.
The Forum was called the European Management Forum until 1987, when it was renamed the World Economic Forum to reflect its expanding scope and transformation from a European to truly global organization.
From the beginning, the Forum had considerable impact in improving political, economic and social awareness, acting as a catalyst for major bridge-building efforts. The Forum has provided a critical platform for furthering peace and reconciliation in many parts of the world, promoting understanding between East and West before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, introducing emerging economies such as China and India to the international community, and bringing to the fore the latest trends and developments in many fields.
The Forum has also been the catalyst for a number of significant global initiatives, such as the Global Compact (developed jointly with the UN); the GAVI Alliance (initially the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization); the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; the expansion of the OECD; and the development of the G20 concept.
Over the last 20 years, the Forum has also evolved the stakeholder principle beyond the corporate level to a truly global sphere, stipulating that political, business and civil society leaders must work together to address the challenges of a globally interconnected world. This enhanced dimension has led to the notion of corporate global citizenship, as outlined by Professor Schwab in a Foreign Affairs article published in 2008.
What has remained unchanged since its founding is the Forum’s dedication to collaboration among stakeholders, its steadfast adherence to the high-level participation of leaders sharing the Forum’s commitment to improving the state of the world, and the Forum’s trust in the power of dialogue and exchange based on mutual respect and civility to bridge divides and shape effective solutions to global challenges. The World Economic Forum has evolved from a modest yet ground-breaking attempt to convene European corporate stakeholders to discuss business strategies into an organization that today is widely regarded as the world’s foremost multistakeholder platform for public-private partnership.
The History of the World Economic Forum
A Partner in Shaping History - The First 40 Years
The story of four decades of the World Economic Forum, as seen through the eyes of its members, leaders and the outside world.
The Forum is perhaps most widely known for its Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters. Through the years, numerous business, government and civil society leaders have made their way to the Swiss Alpine resort to consider the major global issues of the day and to brainstorm on solutions to address these challenges.
While many global institutions are notable for the breadth of nations or the powerful political leaders attending their gatherings, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting and indeed all the activities and initiatives of the Forum around the world are distinguished by the active participation of government, business and civil society figures, both the most experienced and the most promising, all working together in the collaborative and collegial Spirit of Davos.
Professor Schwab then founded the European Management Forum as a non-profit organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, and drew European business leaders to Davos for their Annual Meeting each January.
Initially, Professor Schwab focused the meetings on how European firms could catch up with US management practices. He also developed and promoted the "stakeholder" management approach, which based corporate success on managers taking account of all interests: not merely shareholders, clients and customers, but employees and the communities within which they operate, including government.
Professor Schwab's vision for what would become the World Economic Forum grew steadilly as a result of achieving "milestones". Events in 1973, namely 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 political leaders were invited for the first time to Davos in January 1974.
Two years later, the organization introduced a system of membership, which were "the 1,000 leading companies of the world". The European Management Forum was the first non-governmental institution to initiate a partnership with China's economic development commissions, spurring economic reform policies in China. Regional meetings around the globe were also added to the year's activities, while the publication of the Global Competitiveness Report in 1979 saw the organization expand to become a knowledge hub as well.
The European Management Forum 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. World Economic Forum Annual Meeting milestones during this time include the Davos Declaration signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, which saw them turn back from the brink of war, while in 1989, North and South Korea held their first ministerial-level meetings in Davos. At the same Meeting, East German Prime Minister Hans Modrow and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met to discuss German reunification. In 1992, South African President F. W. de Klerk met Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the Annual Meeting, their first joint appearance outside South Africa and a milestone in the country's political transition.
The Forum has since expanded its activities to include a Centre for Public-Private Partnerships, which engages businesses, civil society and political authorities in initiatives ranging from health in India to alliances combating chronic hunger in Africa. The Forum's knowledge centre has expanded to include several other competitive reports, including the Global Gender Gap Report, Global Risk reports and regional scenario reports.