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An academic perspective on the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos

Today over 1000 chief executives and more than 40 world leaders meet in the Swiss village Davos to discuss the world's issues of today. What is the importance of the conference and what is the actual effectiveness? Dr. Alexandre Afonso, assistant professor in the Department of Public Administration, puts it into perspective in this Q&A.

How important is the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos? 
Davos should be understood in the context of the transformation of global governance in the last 30 years or so, a context in which it has become fairly clear that global issues such as global warming or technological change (the theme of this year’s conference) cannot be solved by intergovernmental negotiations because power has become much more dispersed. They require the participation of a whole range of powerful non-state actors: multinationals, NGOs and other private entities. For instance, can we really reduce carbon emissions without talking to car manufacturers? In theory, an event such as the WEF in Davos, where both politicians, CEOs and other global actors are invited can put all these different actors in contact to think about these global challenges in a way that is not possible within more formal channels such as the UN, the EU or even the G8 or G20.

What is the effectiveness of the conference? Is it just a networking event for world leaders and businessmen or are there any real global issues solved?
In practice, however, the extent to which Davos actually fulfils this function can be debated. For some, it is a meeting place for the global neoliberal elite, where the masters of politics and finance devise plans to exploit the world in an exclusive Swiss ski resort. This is one reason why regular protests have been organised by anti-globalisation movements since the late 1990s, even if the interest in these events has been receding markedly in recent years. For others – and especially those that are there – it is a glorified cocktail party where important people pose for the cameras. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but is difficult to imagine that real « hard » decisions are made in that kind of setting because it has no formal legitimacy (who has the right to be invited?) and participants do not have any requirement to reach agreements on anything.

What’s the role of Non State Actors at the conference and how does it relate to formal institutions such as the UN or IMF?
This is probably the most interesting part in Davos: it potentially allows for a dialogue between a wide variety of actors that are not necessarily invited in formal international structures such as the UN, and to think about big, long-term issues that are not necessarily the topic of intergovernmental negotiations. This year, there is a series of events on the impact of technological change on the economy, or the “fourth industrial revolution”, as they call it. It is difficult to imagine a formal intergovernmental meeting devoted to an issue like this; G8 or EU council meeting tend to deal with much more immediate, short-term issues and not with questions such as “what will work look like in an era of robots”. This is potentially a good, idea, but sometimes discerning what is cheap talk and what is long-term thinking is sometimes difficult.


Alexandre Afonso is Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration. His main fields of research are public policy and comparative political economy with a focus on welfare state and labour market reforms, the political economy of labour migration, and the role of parties and organised interests in policy reforms. He teaches courses on public policy, organised interests, globalisation and research methods. 

Before joining Leiden University, Alexandre Afonso was a lecturer (Assistant Professor) at King's College London (2012-2015). He has held research fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, the European University Institute in Florence, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Amsterdam. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and studied in Geneva and Zurich. 

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