CNBC Comment: Davos cynics miss its true relevance

IT’S EASY to be hysterical or snarky about the annual gathering of chief executives, politicians, economists and “thought leaders” at the World Economic Forum in Davos (which begins this week) – particularly if you’re not going.

Plenty of conspiracy theorists suspect that the world’s elite is gathering in this small Swiss town to plan the global dominance of the few over the many, or to decide who the last person on the space shuttle will be when the planet implodes. But the reality is rather more prosaic. They actually sort that kind of thing out at the Bilderberg meetings.

Everything from Davos participants’ lofty goals, in earnest discussions which sometimes have overtones of the beauty pageant winner’s bland wish for “world peace,” to the presence of celebrities like Matt Damon or Goldie Hawn promoting their pet causes, seems ripe for satire.

The way delegates wear their colour-coded badges at all times, including while out to dinner in restaurants far from the conference centre, is reminiscent of geeky school prefects (which, let’s face it, a lot of them probably were). And the irony of the world’s great and good listening to debates on climate change, when the first item on the conference’s travel advice details where to land your private jet, is apparently lost on many.

More seriously, the decline in the proportion of female delegates from 17 per cent in 2011 to 15 per cent this year – despite a quota being introduced by the organisers – demonstrates depressingly who still rules Davos and the world. With a lot of male attendees from similar backgrounds and ages, often with similar views, it is difficult to argue that it is an accurate reflection of the most original thinking globally.

Yet despite all the cynicism, I’m still looking forward to this week’s conference. There is nowhere else where so many powerful and intelligent people gather (well, there might be, but they certainly aren’t letting me in). And there is no more refreshing antidote to weeks of office small-talk than a few days listening to conversations about how to solve youth unemployment, whether the US is in decline, or the future of the gender gap. The conference has become much more open and digitally savvy in the post-TED era, with many sessions livestreamed online.

If Davos means chief executives think again about the wider impact of their companies, politicians reconsider their ideas about how to treat their people, or worthy charities get their causes heard by people who can help, Davos has more than justified its existence, even to the cynics.

Catherine Boyle is a staff writer and on-air correspondent at CNBC. Follow her on Twitter @cboylecnbc