World Economic Forum (WEF), international organization that convenes an annual winter conference, traditionally in Davos, Switz., for the discussion of global commerce, economic development, political concerns, and important social issues. Some of the world’s most prominent business leaders, politicians, policy makers, scholars, philanthropists, trade unionists, and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) attend the meetings. Headquarters are in Cologny, near Geneva.
The conference was founded by Klaus Schwab, a German scholar of business policy and a professor at the University of Geneva, who in 1971 organized a meeting of European corporate leaders interested in making their businesses competitive with American firms. A tremendous success, the gathering inspired Schwab to establish the European Management Forum, which would facilitate such conferences annually in the isolated town of Davos, selected to ensure privacy. In the mid-1970s the group added political and social topics to its conference agenda and became a membership organization afforded to the world’s leading 1,000 companies (1976). By the end of the decade it had begun sponsoring regional meetings in other parts of the world.
The group assumed the name World Economic Forum (WEF) in 1987 to reflect the importance of global economic and political issues, including poverty, environmental problems, and international conflict, which it immediately began working to resolve. Perhaps the WEF’s most memorable conflict resolution was its successful facilitation in 1988 of the “Davos Declaration,” a no-war agreement signed by Greece and Turkey, which were then on the brink of war because of underwater research being conducted by Turkish entities in areas near the Greek islands. The WEF subsequently helped pave the way for some significant diplomatic breakthroughs, such as the first ministerial-level meeting between North and South Korea (1989); the first face-to-face meeting between African National Congress Pres. Nelson Mandela and South African Pres. F.W. de Klerk (1992), which proved influential in South Africa’s subsequent rejection of apartheid; and the drafting of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement (1994; also known as the Cairo Agreement), a peace treaty reached by Palestinian Liberation Organization chairman Yāsir ʿArafāt and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Despite these successes, however, the WEF was heavily criticized in the late 1990s by antiglobalization activists, who accused the organization of disenfranchising poorer countries through an excessive promotion of global capitalism. The American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington labeled the group “a watering hole for the elite” and coined the term “Davos Man,” a pejorative reference to the WEF member, whom he believed possessed an erroneous sense of international identity. Protests over the group’s activities continued into the early 21st century, and the group responded by extending forum invitations to NGOs and developing countries and introduced the Open Forum Davos (2003), a free public forum held in parallel with the WEF.
The WEF also serves as a think tank, and in this capacity it has launched a series of global economic enterprises, including the Global Health Initiative (2002), and has published numerous research reports, including Faith and the Global Agenda: Values for a Post-Crisis Economy (2010).
This article was most recently revised and updated by Jeannette L. Nolen.