Informal Governance: The World’s Elite gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos

When we think of global governance, the most common thoughts that come to mind focus on organizations like the United Nations, the European Union, the African Union, or the World Trade Organization. While large, formal organizations play a critical role, the complexity of global governance goes beyond what these organizations can manage. The gap is partially filled by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that operate in a wider range of countries under widely differing conditions and following a dizzying array of goals.

One of the most interesting NGO’s is the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation (IOPPC), more often known by the name of its annual meeting: The World Economic Forum. It is an informal NGO that is dedicated to the broad principle of improving the state of the world. Like several other informal governance NGO’s, the IOPPC is technically a Swiss non-profit organization. It is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland.

The IOPPC was created in 1971 to promote the improvement of the state of the world through building social entrepreneurship in world affairs. Managed by a Board of Trustees drawn from a diverse range of government and private industry, the organization seeks to make the world a better place.

Each year the World Economic Forum is held in Davos, Switzerland and brings together a diverse group of the world’s elite to discuss global problems and a vast array of different ideas about what can be done about them. Leaders from many different parts of the world come together to speak and listen and to share ideas about the future. At this rare conference, the Columbian pop singer Shakira can speak as an equal at the same conference as Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China. Shakira’s discussion of the need for greater emphasis on education for young children stems from a long career working to improve the lives of poor children in her home country and in her service as Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Xi Jinping is the first Chinese president to attend the Forum in a sign that China is seeking a larger role in promoting its soft power abroad.

The World Economic Forum lacks the institutional power of intergovernmental organizations like the UN. It lacks the material power of nation-states. Despite this weakness, the influence of the ideas discussed at the forum represent the emerging norms of an international elite that has enormous personal power in many countries around the world. Just how much this matters will be widely debated by students of international politics, but the attention given to the Forum shows that it, at least, has the world’s attention.

 

Discussion:

  1. The World Economic Forum is a talking-shop where the world’s elite discuss major issues. Does this matter in international relations? Does the transmission of ideas and norms actually make a difference?
  2. When we think of global power, we generally think in terms of armies and industrial might. In spite of this, the representatives of powerful states like the PRC send their political leaders to the World Economic Forum. Why would an increasingly powerful nation-state like the PRC send its president to a forum that most leaders of the major powers did not attend?
  3. Davos represents informal elements of global governance. In the absence of a single world government that can enforce agreements between actors in the international system, is informal governance really any different from the more formal versions? If all global governance is basically about self-help, does the distinction between formal institutions and informal exchange of ideas matter?