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Davos forum celebrates 30 years

Klaus Schwab founded the Forum in 1970 as a purely European affair Keystone

In the 30 years since its launch, the World Economic Forum has developed from a small informal gathering of Europe's chief executives into the world's foremost global business summit.

The man behind the forum is Professor of Business Administration at Geneva University, Klaus Schwab. It was Schwab who took the initiative in 1970 to invite Europe’s top business leaders to discussions in the Swiss skiing resort of Davos.

The success of that first meeting led to the establishment in 1971 of the European Management Forum. In 1987, the name was changed to the World Economic Forum to reflect the organisation’s global reach.

In the early years, the gathering dealt primarily with management issues but it has grown to encompass political, social and, increasingly, environmental questions, too.

The Forum has over 1,000 members in more than 50 countries and, as well as top business leaders, the summit now attracts several hundred political and media leaders and academic experts in every field.

Last year’s guest speakers included the United States president, Bill Clinton, and the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

The aim of the Forum is to create an atmosphere for discussion where the world’s top decision-makers can identify problems, discuss solutions and make new contacts.

Since the end of the 1970s the Forum has also become an important vehicle for economic research. In 1979 it began publishing its first annual World Competitiveness Report.

The Forum has also played an increasingly important role in bringing together the world’s political leaders to ease international tensions.

In 1987, the then German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, gave a famous speech urging the West to give the then Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, a chance. Many historians see this as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

The following year, Greece and Turkey pulled back from the brink of war with the signing of the Davos Declaration. The WEF has also provided an arena for progress on the Middle East peace process.

Anti-globalisation protesters criticise the World Economic Forum for being a rich men’s club. They say the WEF helps big corporations and richer countries exclude the world’s poor from economic decision-making.

The WEF has tried to answer its critics in recent years by including environmental, social and cultural questions in its programme. It insists that it wants the benefits of economic growth and globalisation to spread to the developing world.

This will not satisfy hard-core opponents who say the World Economic Forum should be shut down to allow more transparent decision-making.

And it’s true that many of the meetings between the top policy-makers will be held behind closed doors. But this, say the organisers, is a crucial part of the so-called “Esprit de Davos” which has made the summit such a success.

by Michael Hollingdale

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR