• 'Davos' is shorthand for the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting.
  • This year, the meeting runs from 21-24 January at the Swiss town.
  • How do public preconceptions of Davos measure up to reality?

You see it in the news every year – very, very important people meet for a week in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. But what really goes on there?

Even the business leaders attending the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting are aware some scepticism surrounds the event, which is supposed to set the year's agenda for how businesses and governments can make the world a better place for all.

"It is where billionaires tell millionaires what the middle class feels," somebody once told Davos regular Jamie Dimon, the head of investment bank JPMorgan.

What are the preconceptions? What's the reality? What, actually, is Davos?

Davos? Isn’t it just about making big business deals?

There will be plenty of business leaders at Davos – people who make big decisions that can affect everyone.

But that's not the whole story. Approximately one-third of participants are from civil society – including groups that campaign about poverty and inequality, the environment and human rights – as well as academia and the media.

"We often have more trade unionists than central bankers, more Nobel scientists than Nobel economists," says Oliver Cann, Head of Strategic Communications at the World Economic Forum.

Many of these organizations see Davos as the best time to grab the attention of the world’s leaders. Every year, Oxfam publishes its annual report on the state of global inequality: this year, they will be joined by Greenpeace and WWF and many other organizations keen to shape the agenda of the meeting.

But it's still 'pale, male and stale,' right?

The fact that participation in Davos is overwhelmingly male is not just a problem for the World Economic Forum, it’s a problem for world leadership.

The proportion of women participants is slowly climbing – this year 24% will be female. This is more than the ministerial positions held by women worldwide (21%) and a lot more than the proportion of Fortune 1000 CEOs (6%).

To tackle the wider issue of gender inequality, the World Economic Forum launched the Global Gender Gap Report in 2005 and has committed to at least doubling the number of women coming to Davos in the next ten years.

Diversity isn’t just about gender. In Davos last year, a 16-year-old Greta Thunberg used her platform to tell the world's leaders – and the rest of the world – to wake up to climate change.

This year, she will be joined by nine other teenage 'Changemakers'. The youngest, 13-year-old Naomi Wadler, campaigns against gun violence in the United States. Cruz Erdmann, 14, is an award-winning marine wildlife photographer. Autumn Peltier, 15, is a 'water warrior' who campaigns for the rights of First Nation communities in Canada whose water has been contaminated by industrial activity and oil pipelines.

Why is it such a secretive meeting, then?

Actually, it isn't.

True: you can't just turn up at Davos on the day and hope to be let into the meeting – there are far fewer places available than there are people who want to attend. But it's hardly secretive. To keep the public informed, there will be more than 1,000 media representatives – one for every three participants.

A CNBC television team is reporting from the Annual Meeting 2014 of the World Economic Forum outside the congress centre in Davos, January 21, 2014.
Many members of the global media attend Davos.
Image: Moritz Hager

You can see much of the action live as it happens, with over 150 sessions available to watch online and a dedicated website liveblogging highlights.

This year, members of the public have been invited to participate directly. If you have ideas on how to make the world a better place – whether it's about the environment, politics, technology or other subjects – the Forum wants to receive a video from you. The best ones will be posted on the website and shared using the hashtag #fairerworld.

And for the first time, the Forum has invited a group of YouTube influencers from around the world who will be posting videos from Davos giving a fresh perspective and reaching a new and younger audience.

It's just a couple of days on a mountain once a year – nothing gets done, right?

The Davos meeting lasts just four days, but the work started there continues throughout the year, supported by full-time staff at the World Economic Forum.

Here are three examples of work that followed the 2019 meeting:

  • Poverty: The Forum joined forces with the World Bank and the Red Cross to launch a High-Level Group on Humanitarian Investing to unlock private-sector capital for investment in fragile economies.
  • Women's rights: As part of its work to improve equality for women, the Forum expanded its "Closing the Gender Gap" national task forces to eight countries: Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, France, Panama and Peru.
  • LGBTI rights: A group of international businesses launched a Partnership for Global LGBTI Equality, with the companies committing to implement UN Standards of Conduct worldwide throughout their business by 2020.

OK. But, seriously, none of what goes on at Davos will have any impact on me, will it?

Bringing the world's political and business leaders together, along with academic experts and civil society, can mean real steps are taken to address some of the biggest problems faced by people around the world

Are mental health, pollution or reforestation important to you? Here are some wins from the last Davos:

  • Mental health: The Wellcome Trust committed $260 million over five years to improve understanding of depression and anxiety. The research will concentrate on psychological therapies that can be delivered early in life and at the onset of illness, as mental health problems typically start at a young age.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

  • Eliminating electronic waste: The Forum’s Centre for Global Public Goods initiated a project to create a formal electronic waste recycling industry in Nigeria, backed by $2 million in funding from the Global Environment Facility and $13 million of financing from business. The Forum, in collaboration with the United Nations E-waste coalition, released a report outlining the scale of electronic waste produced each year, which is set to more than double by 2050.
  • Reducing deforestation: Peru, home to the second-largest area of Amazonian forest after Brazil, joined the Forum’s Tropical Forest Alliance as part of its efforts to reduce deforestation. The Alliance aims to achieve net-zero deforestation from activities such as the cultivation of palm oil, soy and beef.
  • Tackling plastic pollution: Viet Nam joined the Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP), committing to using a circular economy approach to tackle plastic pollution.
Plastic

What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Contact us to join the partnership.

This year, focus is on reshaping capitalism, with a push to make societies fairer and to rescue the planet from climate disaster. Initiatives include planting a trillion trees, providing a billion people with new skills, and a new way of measuring how businesses serve all their stakeholders, not just shareholders.

You can follow all the sessions from Davos here and follow the meeting across social media using the hashtag #WEF20.