THE BLOG

Does Davos Matter?

22/01/2014 12:21 GMT | Updated 24/03/2014 09:59 GMT

My immediate reaction is "to whom?" Obviously to the corporate leaders, analysts, and political leaders who attend the World Economic Forum's annual event, otherwise they wouldn't bother going. But should the rest of us be concerned? After all, many critics argue these meetings are not inclusive and are dominated by a particular Anglo-Saxon free market view of the economy. Should such criticisms be taken that seriously?

Some perspective is needed. After all, the CEOs of Apple, General Electric, and IBM don't bother trekking to this annual meeting in the Alps. Nor does the world's most well-known investor--Warren Buffet--feel the need to attend. The founders of Google and Facebook stopped attending Davos after a couple of years, according to the New York Times. Apparently, then, not every CEO of a major company is willing to pay the $70,000 annual membership fee. And some of those who paid in the past haven't returned.

The reality is that wherever there are influential policymakers there will be people trying to influence them. Plus in a globalising world, where relative economic might is shifting from across the Atlantic to the Asia-Pacific, it's not surprising that some value a forum where decision-makers can meet counterparts from other countries. In reality, if Davos didn't exist someone would create a similar international forum for corporate and political elites to meet.

But even this argument cannot be taken too far--for these elites have other venues to meet. That's why firms spend so much money establishing government affairs offices near regulators and centres of national power. Plus there are national meetings of thought leaders and decision-makers, many no doubt sponsored by corporate interests. Les cercles des économists plays that role in France.

Perhaps the reason that some CEOs don't go to Davos is that their firms have effective lobbying operations at home and in the foreign countries where these corporates have much at stake. Getting rid of Davos wouldn't rid the world of corporate influence in politics. In fact, to the extent that Davos gets more media attention than other fora, then banning Davos might see the same corporate ends being served by murkier means.

Still it is hard to dismiss the impression that Davos' high price tag keeps out the many at the expense of the few. Even if big corporates don't get their way, they do get to make their case often behind closed doors, or so the argument goes. The hidden premise here is that some have more access to key decision-makers than others. Before accepting this premise it is worth asking the question what effective options citizens have to raise matters in their polities?

Let's not forget that in recent years, with its strong, established tradition of direct democracy, groups of Swiss voters have put up for referenda matters that many in the business community oppose. The associated campaigns have asked tough questions about certain corporate practices, such as executive compensation. This year will see more questions put before the Swiss population that many in the business community will contend.

You might object that other country's voters don't have the same rights as Swiss citizens. But if domestic political processes aren't open and accessible, then this would be true whether Davos met or not. None of this is to imply that Davos is useful, even beneficial. Rather it is to suggest that, even in a globalising world, there's only so much advantage any interest group can make of international events like Davos if democracies give their citizens low cost and open means to raise matters of significance and to act on them. The antidote to a closed Davos is open political systems. Worry much more about threats to the latter than the sound bites from the Swiss Alps.

Simon J. Evenett is Professor of International Trade and Economic Development at the University of St Gallen and Academic Director of the St Gallen MBA.