Klaus Schwab, the chairman of the World Economic Forum, is fighting the commercialisation of the annual meeting, while at the same time seeking about $200 million from sponsors. Photo: Bloomberg

New York - World Economic Forum (WEF) founder Klaus Schwab was in a “constant fight” to keep corporate interests from commandeering the annual meeting in Davos, he said, even as his organisation collects about $200 million (R2.17 billion) from sponsors.

“We fight the commercialisation of the meeting,” Schwab said on Monday. “The forum has a great opportunity to tell the business community: ‘You have to act in the global public interest.’”

Admonishing his corporate benefactors for an overemphasis on profits while at the same time holding his hand outstretched is a balancing act for Schwab.

Companies such as Google, Citigroup and Accenture each pay Sf500 000 (R6m) a year to become a “strategic partner” of the forum. In return they get exposure – a larger delegation and roles in panel discussions at the annual meeting – and media support.

The 110 strategic partners listed on the WEF’s website generate fees of about $60m for the organisers.

Industry partners get a lesser package of similar benefits for Sf250 000. The WEF has about 500 industry partners, which bring in almost $140m in revenue.

Some WEF partners pay by providing services. For example, Omnicom Group covered part of its fee by sending a communications expert, said Georg Schmitt, a communications specialist for the forum.

Schwab knows many top executives come to Davos only to meet clients, host dinners and attend parties. He believes his message is getting through nevertheless.

“The Davos man in the old tradition probably has some self-doubt,” Schwab said. “He knows that capitalism today in principle should be combined with deep social responsibility, with the concern for those who are left out.”

Schwab said his greatest concern this year was the lack of public trust in global leaders. Public relations firm Edelman on Monday released a survey showing trust in the government at 44 percent worldwide, down from 48 percent a year ago. In the US, trust in government plunged to 37 percent from 53 percent.

Global elites who prioritised entrenchment and ignored the demands for more income equality, job creation and action on issues such as climate change did so at their own risk, Schwab said.

“When you’re in a defensive mood, you want to keep as much as possible,” he said. “So you become more short-minded, more egoistic.”

So far, there is no sign that executives are growing tired of Schwab’s pronouncements. Schmitt said that every year several dozen companies applied to be strategic partners and there was currently a waiting list. – Bloomberg