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Business and NGOs remain worlds apart as WEF concludes

The Forum has ended its five-day meeting at the Waldorf Astoria Keystone Archive

Business leaders and representatives from civil society appear to have found little common ground after the end of this year's World Economic Forum in New York.

This content was published on February 5, 2002 - 00:00

In his closing comments, the president and founder of the WEF, Klaus Schwab, said the meeting had helped people take stock and map a blueprint for the future after September 11.

Schwab said the very nature of the Forum made it difficult to measure its success.

"This is not a meeting for decisions," he said. "This is a meeting for insights which should lead to personal commitments and more responsible behaviour."

More than 2,000 participants from business, politics, religion, academia and civil society have been taking part in the five-day event, usually held in the eastern Swiss resort of Davos.

The Geneva-based WEF is funded by contributions from the world's foremost 1,000 corporations and is criticised by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for helping perpetuate an economic system beneficial, they say, only to the world's richer nations.

Image problem

The meeting in New York appears to have done little to bring the two sides closer together, although many business leaders do now acknowledge that the WEF does have an image problem.

"I do believe people feel uncomfortable that so many business leaders are together," CEO of Basel-based Ciba specialty chemicals Armin Meyer told swissinfo.

"But on the other hand we have NGOs here and there is open discussion. We just need to communicate more, to have more dialogue and there will be fewer demonstrations."

The WEF's management has in recent years tried to be more inclusive by bringing NGOs into the debates and most NGO leaders concede that the corporate world is now willing to sit down with their critics.

"The irony is that they have been very receptive," says Peter Brey, the head of Terre des Hommes, a Swiss charity that promotes the interests of children.

"All the demonstrations outside and the sheer size of Porto Alegre's World Social Forum make them aware of the issues. They listen but whether they hear is something else, and what counts is action not words."

Globalisation

The indications, however, are that most political and corporate leaders at WEF believe the version of free-market globalisation that has been followed for the last two decades is the right way forward and that it simply needs to be better marketed.

"We need more globalisation, not less," said former Mexican president, Ernesto Zedillo. "Those of us who see the benefits have not made our case forcefully enough."

But for Brey, the model of unrestrained capitalism let loose on much of the developing world is directly responsible for the increasing problems faced by Terre des Hommes: child trafficking and the exploitation of children for labour and sex.

Some NGO leaders think that business is coming round to admitting the errors of the last two decades but most do not share that view.

"Forty years ago we saw situations of injustice but we also had hope," Brey told swissinfo. "Now we see that things are not getting better, but also hope has been taken away and if you take hope away from children the situation gets really dramatic."

Apart from the continuing clash between business leaders and NGOs, the war against terror and the prospects for economic recovery have topped the agenda at this year's Forum.

War on terror

Participants heard the US secretary of state, Colin Powell, promise that the war on terror would be expanded to target states that aided terrorists.

Some experts also warned that the world should be prepared in future for even worse assaults than those that brought down the World Trade Center.

On the economy, there appeared to be little consensus. Many CEOs remain downcast about their companies' prospects over the next 12 months, but the US treasury secretary, Paul O'Neill, said the US economy could easily show an annual growth rate of 3.0 to 3.5 per cent for the indefinite future.

The World Economic Forum comes home to Switzerland next year but its long-term commitment to Davos remains in doubt. Delegates here have been impressed by New York's organisation.

"It was absolutely the right decision to come here because it had a great symbolic meaning after September 11," Novartis CEO Daniel Vasella told swissinfo. "And having spoken to colleagues, it's been very positive, very impressive."

Return to New York

Schwab himself did not rule out the possibility of a return to New York in the future.

Others have mixed feelings about whether the spirit of Davos has survived the move.

"The spirit of open discussion is still there," says Armin Meyer, "but it's a different way of doing things. Here we are a small conference in a big city, but in Switzerland it was a big conference in a small town: that makes a difference."

But it will not have escaped the Forum's notice that much of the violence that surrounded the event in Davos in recent years was not evident in New York. A huge police operation that saw thousands of officers deployed to the meeting ensured that protests passed off mostly peacefully.

Some arrests were made in Greenwich Village on Sunday when protesters blocked the streets but the large-scale violence many feared did not materialise.

by Michael Hollingdale, New York

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