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World: Economic Forum Discusses Key Priorities

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 27 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The annual World Economic Forum opening in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday (Jan. 29) brings together a outstanding line-up of top political leaders, economists, businessmen and intellectuals.

Some 2,000 participants will spend six days at the Swiss ski resort, discussing key priorities for the world in the 21st Century. Among them will be Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, presidents or prime ministers from East Europe and Central Asia, including Bulgarian President Petar Stoyanov and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, plus United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

American super-businessmen Bill Gates of Microsoft and investor George Soros will be there, as well as Newt Gingrich, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. From Latin America come a flock of presidents, including Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and from Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, among others, as well as senior members of the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Also present will be Harvard University's Jeffry Sachs, the economist who has caught world headlines by challenging the IMF's financial prescriptions for curing the Asian crisis.

From Asia itself comes China's vice premier Li Lanqing, and a host of businessmen and officials from Japan, Singapore and the troubled former tigers Thailand and Indonesia. The world of culture is present in the form of great figures like violinist Yehudi Lord Menuhin.

All these star performers will be turning their attention to priorities for the world in the coming century. Economics, the original subject of the Davos forum, will naturally be a major theme, but discussion will range across the spectrum of human affairs, including environment, health, ethics, science and artistic fulfillment.

Starting with the economic agenda, a key preoccupation will be how to deal with market volatility. Overall, the world economy continues to grow strongly, with the U.S. surging ahead, recovery apparently underway in Europe, and many emerging markets continuing to boom. But overshadowing all this is the extreme volatility which has come to show the vulnerability of world financial markets.

The forum will explore what can be done about this volatility, which promotes insecurity and undercuts growth. In this context the Asian crisis will be examined in detail, including steps that governments will take in the hope of restoring their economies to double-digit growth.

Discussion about the United States will focus on whether that country will be able to retain its unrivaled position as the world's only economic and military superpower in the new century.

Fitting in another piece of the global jigsaw puzzle will be the West Europeans, who will outline the implications of coming monetary union, and the threat to Europe posed by the Asian crisis. Speakers on this include France's central bank governor Jean-Claude Trichet.

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski will be among speakers on the topic of whether membership of NATO and the European Union for some Central and East European countries, and not for others, will result in a new division of Europe.

Linked with the politico-economic themes will be key social preoccupations. For instance George Soros will be among speakers on how to balance the dictates of the free market economy with the creation or preservation of caring societies. Germany's Economy Minister Guenther Rexrodt will talk on problems of unemployment, which causes so much loss of faith in the future, particularly among the young.

A preoccupying socio-political theme this year is the decline in the power of nation-states as globalised business and international organizations gain in weight. The question is, are governments willing to accept this erosion of their powers, and what will be the consequences?. Associated ethical problems will be examined, for instance, whether the shift in power away from governments towards companies means that a set of global business ethics is needed for the global economy.

Islam is another theme. There will be discussion of the contradictory signals indicating the possible paths of Islam in the coming century. That will be examined by oriental academics and western analysts. The Turkish experience with Islam and democracy will also come under scrutiny.

Participants weary of all these practical considerations will be able to switch to cultural themes, like the role of art as social commentary, or whether manners and mores will die out in the new century. The biggest imponderable of all comes at the end of the program: are we looking for new spiritual meaning at the dawn of the 21st century?