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Independent voices echo in Davos

French Economics Minister Christine Lagarde at the Open Forum 2010 session Keystone

Corruption, Afghanistan and the euro’s woes are just a few of the burning issues being debated on the sidelines of the 41st World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting.

This content was published on January 27, 2011 - 16:50
Eveline Kobler, swissinfo.ch

For the ninth year running the WEF and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches are jointly staging a free public discussion event in Davos, known as the Open Forum. Federation spokesman Simon Weber talked to swissinfo.ch about its value.













Focusing on globalisation and its impact, the organisers of the parallel forum believe closer ties can foster constructive dialogue between the anti-globalisation movement, big business and world leaders.

"The idea was to organise a roundtable discussion where not only business leaders take part. We wanted to give normal members of the public the chance to attend,” Simon Weber, spokesman for the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches, told swissinfo.ch.

This year’s panel includes the president of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Tomasz Sikorski, Chair of Transparency International Huguette Labelle and former German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn.

At the end of each one-hour podium discussion, anyone from the 400-strong audience can ask questions as the microphone is passed round.

 
Over the past nine years Weber says he has detected definite changes in the official high-level global meeting.

“I have noticed an increased understanding for ethical issues among the WEF people we collaborate with. They better comprehend our concerns about sustainability issues, for example,” he said.

And you can tell that the content of what is discussed during the WEF has changed just by looking at the list of people invited, Weber added.

Earlier it was mostly business leaders, but nowadays there are also many government officials, religious representatives and even non-governmental organisations rubbing shoulders with top business people.

Demos

According to Weber, the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches has never really been part of the anti-globalisation protest movement, which started organising large-scale demonstrations in early 2000 in Davos, Bern and other cities against the secretive business get-togethers.

Anti-WEF protests have since changed form. The number of demonstrators has dropped from around 2,000 between 2001-2004 to around 200, as witnessed at a march in St Gallen last Saturday.

But bomb threats and the risk of violence are still a reality. Swiss police evacuated a building and removed a suspicious object on Wednesday in the town of St Gallen after a group of left-wing opponents of the WEF said they had targeted Switzerland's top business school to coincide with the meeting.

“In the past I believed non-violent demonstration could be a way of expressing criticism of globalisation,” Weber admitted.

Dialogue

But the Protestant federation prefers to talk.

“The path of dialogue is a classical Protestant solution,” said Weber, who is also a trained theologian and priest. “We don’t want to tell people what is the right way of thinking or action. People have to form their own opinions and we offer that possibility within this framework.”

Complicated issues tackled at the Open Forum require both sides of the argument to be heard and discussions are generally fierce, he said, adding that the forum is not aiming to be a completely neutral platform for discussion.

And it is not all about business, politics or sport. Religion also has its place. This year religious leaders from Switzerland and Germany will be debating whether individual faith really needs religious institutions and their structures.

“I believe it is part of the church’s religious work to say to people: don’t think in small terms. The wider your horizons, the greater your personal freedom to be responsive to your neighbour,” Weber said.

Open Forum

Swiss non-governmental organisations and a number of church groups organised the first rival summit at the 2003 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos to raise concerns about globalisation.

The aim was to foster improved relations and dialogue between the two opposing camps.

From January 27-29 the Ninth Open Forum is being held in Davos parallel to the annual meeting of the WEF, organised by the WEF and the Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches.

The meetings of the Davos Open Forum are open to the public and admission is free. They take place at the Swiss Alpine Middle School in central Davos. The languages for the discussion are German and English (simultaneous translation). After a first round of discussion between the panellists, the audience is invited to challenge them with controversial questions and positions.

The Swiss Television Station DRS broadcasts individual sessions of the Davos Open Forum live or in summary reports on the channel SF info.

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