The Davos Conference

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Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty

A staff member installs a carpet on the main stage of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos.

The small alpine ski town of Davos has just entered its peak season. Every January, a lively mélange of global business magnates, world leaders, entrepreneurs, activists, journalists and intellectuals descend upon the Swiss village to ski, socialize and participate in the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. The five-day gathering, organized by the Geneva-based nonprofit, is intended to provide a platform to debate pressing global challenges. Not surprisingly, the recent economic meltdown is at the forefront of the agenda for this year's meeting — aptly titled "Shaping the Post-Crisis World" — which kicked off on January 28th and is already considered to be the most important (and somber) Davos conference yet. Read TIME's Davos 2009 blog.

The World Economic Forum got its start in January 1971 when University of Geneva Professor Klaus Schwab chaired a centralized meeting of the key players in European business to discuss ways that their firms could catch up with successful American management practices. The success of the meeting led Schwab to create the European Management Forum as a non-profit that would facilitate such conferences on an annual basis. The choice to host the meetings in Davos, Switzerland — a town famous as a 19th century destination for Europeans seeking treatment for lung disease — was based on its isolated location and the privacy it ensured. Read more about Davos 2009.

Shortly after the European Management Forum was founded, world events began to shift the focus of the annual meetings to encompass more global issues. The collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed exchange system, which pegged the value of foreign currencies to the US dollar, and the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 introduced political and economic elements to the Davos discussions, and political leaders joined the European businessmen at the following meeting in January 1974. By 1976, membership in the forum was extended to the "1,000 leading companies of the world."

Finally in 1987, the organization solidified its new international status by re-branding itself as the World Economic Forum. The new WEF broadened its scope of influence by tackling the resolution of international conflicts, forestalling war between Turkey and Greece in 1988 by convincing them to sign the "Davos Declaration." In the years that followed, Davos became home to some of the most memorable diplomatic moments in history including the first ministerial meetings held between North and South Korea in 1989, the milestone sitdown between South African President F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1992 and the 1994 draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho reached by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres and PLO head Yasser Arafat.

Despite the success of its conflict resolution efforts, the annual Davos meetings became the target of anti-globalization activists in the late 1990s who accused the group of promoting excessive global capitalism and disenfranchising poorer nations. Political scientist Samuel Huntington who coined the pejorative term "Davos Man" (referring to participants who he viewed as having a false sense of their international identity), famously dismissed the conference as a "watering hole for the global elite." The WEF quickly responded to the complaints by inviting representatives of developing countries and NGOs to the meeting and introducing an adjacent forum nearby, open to all members of the public.

Despite 2009's gloomy financial forecast, conference founder Klaus Schwab remains optimistic about the conference's success. "The extraordinary participation in terms of political and business leaders and other stakeholders demonstrates that our Annual Meeting will be the place where key actors can address both a crisis of unprecedented scope and at the same time, the sort of world we collectively want to see emerging once the crisis is over."

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