Can WEF help save the world from ruin?


As business leaders and politicians pack their bags to exit the World Economic Forum, they leave behind the burning question: what has the annual meeting achieved?

This content was published on January 31, 2009 - 18:55

Billing this year's Davos forum as the most significant to date, organisers urged participants to ditch their lax approach to previous meetings and work together to find a solution to the global economic crisis.

The mood was certainly more business-like and sombre as frowns and poker faces replaced the 2008 vintage of back-slapping and broad smiles.

The debates also took on a steelier edge with some participants alternately pointing fingers and dodging recriminations as the blame-game dragged on.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan even stormed away from one podium session, claiming he was not given enough time to speak.

New United States President Barack Obama opted to remain at home so early into his new position, leaving the stage to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

Not everyone in Davos was pleased to see the Chinese delegation. Tibetan protestors staged a peaceful protest and local police told one shopkeeper to remove a flag of the occupied territory from her window to avoid giving offence.

Pay attention!

But the real action was carried out behind the scenes as bankers, executives, politicians - including heads of state – and representatives from non-governmental organisations met to discuss ways out of the global economic crisis.

WEF founder Klaus Schwab had accused participants at previous meetings of partying too hard, while managing director André Schneider said not enough attention had been paid to warning signs aired during past sessions.

But what good will come out of all these meetings? Panellists pointed the finger of blame in many directions and came up with wildly conflicting solutions during sessions.

Peter Katzenstein, professor of international studies at Cornell University in New York, was sceptical about the benefits of the WEF meeting.

"Davos is not about finding solutions, it is about presentation. It is not unimportant but it is a symbol of globalisation that has very little meaning for most people in the world," he told swissinfo.

But WEF organisers claim previous meetings have produced tangible results, particularly in the field of diplomacy. Its website states that Greece and Turkey were pulled back from the brink of war in 1988 by signing the "Davos Declaration" at a forum.

Protectionism fears

The organisation also claims to have helped in the process of German reunification, staving off tensions in the Middle East and Korea, and facilitating meetings between opposing sides in apartheid era South Africa.

The very act of getting so many stakeholders from diverse fields together in one place was a good thing in itself, one member of the public in Davos told swissinfo.

"The biggest danger facing the world is that countries will try to solve problems on their own by introducing protectionist measures," he said.

But another member of the audience, a retired Swiss banker, believes the very people being assembled to solve the global problem are out of touch.

"They all need re-educating," he said. "They may have been excellently trained in the means of making money, but they know nothing of the real world."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Davos


The World Economic Forum started life as the European Management Forum in 1971.

Formed by German-born businessman Professor Klaus Schwab, it was designed to connect European business leaders to their counterparts in the United States to find ways of boosting connections and solving problems.

It is a non-profit organisation with headquarters in Geneva and is funded by the varying subscription fees of its members.

The forum took its current name in 1987 as it broadened its horizons to provide a platform for finding solutions to international disputes. WEF claims to have helped calm disputes between Turkey and Greece, North and South Korea, East and West Germany and in South Africa during the apartheid regime.

WEF conducts detailed global and country specific reports and conducts other research for its members. It also hosts a number of annual meetings – the flagship being Davos at the beginning of each year.

In 2002, this meeting was moved to New York for a one-off change of venue to support the city following the 9/11 terrorist attacks of the previous year.

Davos has attracted a number of big names in the world of business, academia, politics and show business. These include: Nelson Mandela, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Bono, Angela Merkel, Bill Gates and Sharon Stone.

As the forum grew in size and status in the 1990s, it attracted rising criticism from anti-globalisation groups, complaining of elitism and self-interest among participants.

The 2009 WEF in Davos was held from January 28 to February 1.

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