Page last updated at 13:25 GMT, Thursday, 5 February 2009

Rules and pecking orders at Davos

By Stephanie Flanders
BBC Economics editor, in Davos

The World Economic Forum in Davos is supposed to be a gathering of the elite. A time when the world's movers and shakers go to the Swiss mountains to talk about being on top of the world.

A participant walking past a sign at the World Economic Forum (Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
The Forum attracted around 2,500 participants from over 90 countries

It is a club. And with any club, the rule is that you want it to be as small as possible while still including you.

The knack of the organisers for exploiting this weakness of human nature fits with everything you have ever heard about the Swiss.

I am told that the private companies that bankroll the event find it ruinously expensive to bring anyone other than the boss. He or she gets in fairly cheap because it helps Davos to be full of number ones.

You pay a lot more to bring your number twos and threes. They are worth less to the gathering, but the organisers know they are the ones who will really, really want to come.

The result? A lot of money for the World Economic Forum, but also a lot of people in the club.

This year the "select few" going to Davos ran to more than 2,500.

Yet Davos has an answer to that too.

It is all in the colour of your badge. That tells you where you are in the pecking order, in the Forum's favoured phrase, your level of "guestdom".

And trust me, the powers that be have a very shrewd idea of who is up and who is down.

White badges mean you are a full participant.

If you are a journalist that means the holy grail of being able to wander the conference centre, collecting bigwigs - and their mobile phone numbers - from the hallways, like so many hanging fruit.

Reporters with orange badges can only lurk in the background, like the second-class citizens they are.

There was no escaping the feeling that all these titans of global capitalism were in the same boat, and that boat was going down
A purple badge with a red stripe means you are "with" someone - someone like Tony Blair or George Soros.

Plain purple or green spells even higher levels of the elite elite. But I think you have to be a former president to even know what they mean.

The upshot is that thousands of self-important people can spend four days living cheek by jowl in a tiny ski resort and still come away with their egos intact - assuming no-one asked the president of Mexico to talk on a panel with fewer than two other heads of state.

Anthropologists would have a field day, if they had a chance of getting in.

Changing priorities

But at this year's gathering of the tribe, even cursory observation would have revealed a change of mood.

Richard Branson experiences life as a refugee at the UN sponsored 'refugee run' (Photo: PIERRE VERDY/AFP/Getty Images)
Richard Branson experienced life as a refugee at the World Economic Forum
For all the careful gradations of colour and access, there was no escaping the feeling that all these titans of global capitalism were in the same boat, and that boat was going down.

The gift bags said it all.

A few years ago they were giving away state-of-the-art electronic organisers. This year there was a bargain basement pedometer and a request that you walk around the village instead of taking the limo.

There were sideshows to distract the condemned.

A neuro-biologist turned Buddhist monk told the participants that it was time "to take a more altruistic world view".

The Forum's own group of Young Global Leaders held an event declaring it was time to "De-Worm the World".

The financiers were top dogs here even two years ago. Now even Davos man considers them the lowest of the low
Five minutes from the conference centre there was even a concrete basement where the likes of Richard Branson and the CEO of Nike turned off their mobile phones, wrapped their heads in a bandage, and spent an hour "living the life of a refugee".

The UN sponsors of the "refugee run", as it was called, said it was based on the idea that you only understand a man if you walk a mile in his shoes.

It was probably less than a mile, but for many at Davos this year I suspect that pretending to wear a refugee's shoes was a pleasant break from actually wearing their own.

Reversal of fortunes

Back inside the conference hall, there was no badge to escape the gloom about the global economy.

And in the end, perhaps for the first time in its 40-year history, the starry list of participants told you less about the state of the world than the list of those who stayed at home.

Most of the world's leading bankers did not show. Those that did come only came out at night.

The financiers were top dogs here even two years ago. Now even Davos man considers them the lowest of the low.

Governments and their old-fashioned rescue packages are back on top. The American government most of all.

None of the key players in the new Obama administration made the trip. They were too busy saving the world.

The grandees at Davos want them to succeed. But they know that in the world economy that comes out of this, they may no longer have the plum spot.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 5 February, 2009 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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