The Trouble With Davos: World Economic Forum’s Delegate ‘Rankings’

Author: Michelle Russell       

World Economic Forum

President Donald J. Trump addresses the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2020 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland. (World Economic Forum/Benedikt Von Loebell)

The World Economic Forum Annual Meeting, also known as Davos, took place Jan. 21–24 in Davos, Switzerland. With the theme “Stakeholders for a Cohesive and Sustainable World,” you might think that the stakeholders invited to attend Davos had firmly established their place in the highest rungs of business-oriented society. But, as a Quartz article points out, the World Economic Forum (WEF) assigns its delegates — what is generally understood as the global elite — to categories according to their level of importance.

How the 3,000 attendees were classified is indicated by the color and design of their name badge, the article notes. Delegates were categorized in seven levels, denoting their seniority or significance in the business world. Level 1 included top executives and heads of state, as well as editors in chief and high-ranking academics. Senior executives and journalists fell into level 2. Central bankers and heads of international organizations were grouped into the third level. Level four included country officials in a sub-ministerial position. Local government officials and middle management were in level 5. Level 6 was for honorary position and public sector experts, and level 7 was for functional staff.

Quartz provided an example: Donald Trump was listed as “1-Head of State.” His daughter Ivanka Trump, who has the title “Advisor to the President,” was listed as “7-Functional Staff.” And her husband, Jared Kushner, “Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor to the President,” was noted as “4-Sub-Ministerial Post.”

The WEF declined to comment to Quartz on the purpose of the categorization of attendees, but it would seem that those higher up in the system would receive preferential or VIP treatment, and those in the know (i.e., WEF organizers) could easily identify them via their name badges.

World Economic Forum

Anand Giridharadas (Mackenzie Stroh photo)

Taking Issue With Davos

Nearly half — 46 percent — of this year’s Davos delegates were listed as ones, and 0.75 percent were sevens. That stat would lend even greater credence to the thinking behind Anand Giridharadas’ bestselling 2018 book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. In a nutshell, Giridharadas believes that today’s plutocrats — what he calls the 1 percent — “maintain their elite status, and the broader status quo, by using their wealth to control, marionette-style, the priorities of America’s noble-minded societal institutions, from top research universities to humble community organizations,” according to a recent Fast Company profile of Giridharadas and his work.

That control, Giridharadas says, is exercised at eight events — with Davos named first — where elite thought leaders gather to share ideas. He calls this event circuit “MarketWorld,” and lists SXSW, TED, Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, and Aspen Ideas Festival among them.

World Economic Forum

Abigail Disney

These kinds of events that traffic in big ideas about social responsibility have frustrated filmmaker Abigail Disney, who said she had participated in “countless high-level change-the-world-themed conferences.” She told Fast Company she had found them alienating “by their narrow and self-serving version of generosity.”

The conversation around fundraising for girls’ education in developing countries is one example she cited. “We chase it because girls don’t do inconvenient things like want rights and want to vote and want equal pay,” Disney said. “Once they turn into women, they start being too politically threatening. Those rooms full of people do not like you talking about rights.”

At PCMA, we say that business events lead to social and economic transformation, but clearly Giridharadas and Disney would take exception to that actually being the case for the elite gatherings that call that their mission. Perhaps events frequented by those lower in the social strata are better equipped to move society forward.

Michelle Russell is editor in chief of Convene.