Professor Klaus Schwab opens the inaugural European Management Forum in Davos in 1971.
, then Japanese prime minister gives a special message at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011
, founder and executive chairman, World Economic Forum
The WEF was founded in 1971 by Klaus Schwab, a German-born business professor at the University of Geneva. First named the "European Management Forum", it changed its name to the World Economic Forum in 1987 and sought to broaden its vision to include providing a platform for resolving international conflicts.
In the summer of 1971, Schwab invited 444 executives from Western European firms to the first European Management Symposium held in the Davos Congress Centre under the patronage of the European Commission and European industrial associations, where Schwab sought to introduce European firms to American management practices. He then founded the WEF as a nonprofit organization based in Geneva and drew European business leaders to Davos for the annual meetings each January.
Schwab developed the "stakeholder" management approach, which attributed corporate success to managers actively taking account of all interests: not merely shareholders, clients, and customers, but also employees and the communities within which the firm is situated, including governments. Events in 1973, including the collapse of the Bretton Woods fixed-exchange rate mechanism and the Arab–Israeli War, saw the annual meeting expand its focus from management to economic and social issues, and, for the first time, political leaders were invited to the annual meeting in January 1974.
Political leaders soon began to use the annual meeting as a neutral platform. The Davos Declaration was signed in 1988 by Greece and Turkey, helping them turn back from the brink of war. In 1992, South African President F. W. de Klerk met with Nelson Mandela and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi at the annual meeting, their first joint appearance outside South Africa. At the 1994 annual meeting, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat reached a draft agreement on Gaza and Jericho.
In late 2015, the invitation was extended to include a North Korean delegation for the 2016 forum, "in view of positive signs coming out of the country," the WEF organizers noted. North Korea has not been attending the WEF since 1998. The invitation was accepted but after the January 2016 North Korean nuclear test on 6 January, the invitation was revoked, and the country's delegation was made subject to "existing and possible forthcoming sanctions." Despite protests by North Korea calling the decision by the WEF managing board a "sudden and irresponsible" move, the WEF committee maintained the exclusion because "under these circumstances there would be no opportunity for international dialogue."
In 2017, the World Economic Forum in Davos attracted considerable attention when for the first time, a head of state from the People's Republic of China was present at the alpine resort. With the backdrop of Brexit, an incoming protectionist US administration and significant pressures on free trade zones and trade agreements, President Xi Jinping defended the global economic scheme, and portrayed China as a responsible nation and a leader for environmental causes. He sharply rebuked the current populist movements that would introduce tariffs and hinder global commerce, warning that such protectionism could foster isolation and reduced economic opportunity.
In 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the plenary speech becoming the first head of state from India to deliver the inaugural keynote for the annual meet at Davos. Modi highlighted climate change, terrorism and protectionism as the three major global challenges, and expressed confidence that they can be tackled with collective effort.