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Confessions of a Davos virgin

Top business leaders mingled with celebrities at the WEF meeting in Davos Keystone

For a first-timer at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF), it was often hard to see what all the fuss was about.

I arrived in Davos expecting a flood of stories about the 2005 corporate agenda – but hard-nosed business angles were few and far between.

Those sessions that focused on such issues were totally upstaged by the “new agenda” of combating poverty, Aids and climate change.

Indeed, with political and business leaders all vying to upstage one another in the compassion stakes, you could understand the muted response of the usually vocal WEF critics.

As a first-timer, I was in good company. The WEF’s press office told me I was one of 787 “Davos virgins”, out of a total of 2,346 participants.

WEF founder Klaus Schwab even suggested on day one that every Davos veteran “adopt” one of the new arrivals in an effort to break them in gently.

I was certainly impressed by the sheer scale and complexity of the five-day event.

Something for everyone

There were around 200 workshops, covering just about every issue under the sun, and the first decision every participant had to make was what to attend – and what to avoid.

Schwab said the complexity was deliberate, in that it “mirrored the state of the world”.

On the logistics front, 5,000 police and soldiers were deployed to ensure security in and around the alpine resort.

Every participant had a unique electronic badge (courtesy of Swiss IT company Kudelski), which was the only way of getting through the “security zone” around the bunker-like congress centre.

Once inside, it was soon clear what Davos was all about: an incredible concentration of household names, ranging from heads of state and business legends to stars of Hollywood and popular music.

Angelina Jolie, Richard Gere, Sharon Stone, Lionel Richie and Peter Gabriel were just a few of this year’s star guests.

Everyone was playing the celebrity game – one senior US executive broke off his conversation as U2’s Bono came round the corner, and gave a virtuoso display of elbow-jabbing before emerging with a “pals together” picture on his mobile phone.

Celebrity causes

It’s easy – and perhaps a little churlish – to suggest that the focus on social issues at this year’s meeting was just a reflection of the higher-than-usual turnout of celebrities with a cause.

But WEF meetings have always had a significant “social” component – the organisation proclaims in its mission statement that it is “committed to improving the state of the world”.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair set the tone in his opening address on Wednesday, which he devoted largely to the joint themes of climate change and financial aid for Africa.

And that brings us back to the anti-WEF activists and two key questions: is the compassion genuine, and will anything come out of it?

It seems that the corporate leaders really do want to improve the state of the world – as long as it doesn’t overly affect their balance sheets.

Balancing the books

Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski got it about right when he said that everybody was talking about poverty, “but what everyone is really thinking about is lunch”.

Words were not in short supply last week, but concrete action plans were thin on the ground.

The one decisive piece of action came from neither business nor politics – Sharon Stone’s personal intervention during an aid workshop, which raised $1 million (SFr1.2 million) for malaria nets in less than an hour.

As financial guru George Soros commented, raising $6 billion for Africa “shouldn’t be difficult”.

Perhaps, as one observer suggested, the organisers should have put all the WEF delegates in a room with Bono and kept the doors locked until they’d collected the money needed.

Looking again at the guest list, and making a rough guess at their combined personal assets, they could probably have done a lot more than save Africa.

swissinfo, Chris Lewis in Davos

The 35th annual meeting of the WEF took place in Davos from 26th to 30th January.
It attracted 2,346 participants, many of them household names from politics, business and entertainment.
In all, 787 delegates were there for the first time, while 54 had been ten times or more.
Issues discussed ranged from the state of the global economy to development aid.

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