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World: Economic Forum Organizers Say No More Business As Usual

  • Robert McMahon

For the first time in its 31 years, the World Economic Forum will not take place in the Swiss mountain enclave of Davos, instead opening itself up to the scrutiny of media and antiglobalization groups in New York City. Organizers of the forum say they have restructured the event and broadened the range of participants to foster dialogue on issues ranging from terrorism to poverty reduction.

New York, 29 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The organizers of this year's World Economic Forum say they hope to solicit an especially wide range of views on how to solve the world's social and economic problems.

The organizers told a news conference yesterday that the terrorist bombings in the United States last September fundamentally changed the approach to this year's forum. Normally, the forum is a talking shop that brings business executives and government leaders together in the confines of the Swiss resort of Davos. But this year's forum, which starts on 31 January, has been moved to New York, still scarred by the terrorist attacks, but also a world media capital.

Organizers say they plan to group many of the estimated 2,700 participants into 48 workshops aimed at producing recommendations on issues such as poverty reduction, world security, and the pace of globalization.

The founder and president of the forum, Klaus Schwab, stressed the conference's goal is to foster productive debate on the issues of the day, not promote one ideology over the other.

"We are a forum, a platform for interaction. But we believe very much that our driving force -- business -- in partnership with the other constituents of society, have to work together in order to create not only an economic-added value but a social-added value."

As in the previous 31 years of the forum, hundreds of the world's top corporate executives will take part, along with scores of government leaders. Secretary of State Colin Powell will be the top U.S. official to attend. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien are other leading figures who will participate.

Key leaders to attend from countries to which Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broadcasts include Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Macedonian President Boris Trajkovski, Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai.

The forum has also invited more than 40 religious leaders and experts, as well as representatives of more than 100 non-governmental organizations, to take part in the panel discussions and workshops over five days.

In the past, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been critical of the forum's exclusivity and influence. But they remain an important barometer of the general public's views on a wide range of issues, said Jose Maria Figueres, a managing director of the forum and former president of Costa Rica.

"NGOs today are a very important representation of society. We need their active involvement and participation, not only in some of the discussions of the challenges we face on the global agenda, but we also need them very proactively if we are going to move forward on issues dealing with better development opportunities."

But NGOs active at past global economic meetings, including the forum, plan to hold parallel events to raise awareness about what they say are corporate abuses of the environment and of developing countries.

Michael Dolan is a member of Public Citizen's Global Tradewatch, a group focused on promoting government and corporate accountability in conferences like the World Economic Forum. Dolan tells RFE/RL the forum is not serious about engaging civil society groups or permitting transparency in all its discussions.

"This is an opportunity for corporate and political elites to meet behind closed doors and to strategize the expansion of what we feel is a flawed and failed globalization agenda."

Dolan says private talks during past meetings of the forum have aided in the establishment of institutions such as the World Trade Organization, which globalization opponents criticize as undemocratic. Dolan says he will take part in parallel events in New York but stressed he would only participate in nonviolent demonstrations. Violence from protesters marred global economic meetings in Seattle, Prague, and Genoa, among other places, in the past two years.

Dolan's comments reflected the general mood of activists interviewed before this year's forum. They have expressed little desire to cause distress to New Yorkers still coping with the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in the World Trade Center attacks.

Carol Welch is director of international programs for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group. She told RFE/RL many NGOs are committed to peaceful demonstrations and wish to keep the spotlight on the forum and globalization concerns. She repeated the concern of many NGOs that the World Economic Forum provides a venue for important decision-making out of the public eye.

"[Forum participants] are often discussing things that wind up being of fundamental importance to people around the world, like the impact of free trade or investment liberalization, issues that should really be discussed in democratic political fora."

Welch says her group this week is going to issue a challenge to executives of major corporations attending the forum to support global rules for corporations that could be negotiated at the United Nations.