The World Economic Forum is challenging its critics by organising its own forum to bring together business and political leaders and non-governmental organisations.This content was published on January 20, 2004 - 20:27
But opponents say the WEF is simply paying lip service to the idea of corporate responsibility.
Some of the business and political leaders gathering in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos for this year’s WEF have also been invited to participate in the “Open Forum”.
The Open Forum is an independent platform of the WEF. It tackles similar issues to its main critic, the “Public Eye on Davos”, which was set up by NGOs five years ago to monitor the activities of the WEF and its participants.
The Open Forum started last year and, according to Miriam Behrens of Pro Natura – the Swiss arm of Friends of the Earth – was conceived in response to the Public Eye.
“The Open Forum is not a reflection of the discussions going on inside the WEF, even though it pretends to be,” Behrens said.
“In past years both Pro Natura and Friends of the Earth have been inside the WEF, but this year we have been actively ‘disinvited’.
“Once we know which NGOs are being allowed to take part, we’ll be able to see whether the WEF is trying to rotate NGOs as it claims, or simply preferring to include those which are less critical.”
The Public Eye is once again calling for an international convention to regulate the behaviour of big business.
“We want rules to control the conduct of multinationals to be introduced on an international level,” Matthias Herfeldt of the Berne Declaration – one of the NGOs behind the conference – told swissinfo.
“Globalisation should not be something that benefits just the big corporations that are members of the WEF. It should also work for people in developing countries.”
The message is not a new one. It was also among NGO demands at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 as well as last year’s WEF in Davos.
But this time around, the Public Eye is specifically targeting the world’s political leaders, perhaps because it has not managed to attract any high profile CEOs to its conference.
“We have tried to involve bosses of big business, but they haven’t accepted our invitation to attend,” Herfeldt said.
“As it’s political leaders who have to decide democratically on any measures that may lead to more corporate accountability, it’s more important that they hear our message,” he added.
Herfeldt’s comments could be interpreted as the organisers putting a brave face on the fact that no high profile business leaders will be taking part in the Public Eye’s panel discussions.
But Behrens says that their absence does not mean that the conference has become a sideshow.
She denies that Public Eye discussions will be completely lopsided with international organisations, NGOs and unions preaching to the converted.
“It has always been difficult for us to get people who are outside NGO circles to come to the conference,” she told swissinfo.
“I guess there’s a certain amount of fear, and CEOs could well be afraid of the criticism they’ll have to face.
“Of course there’s some truth in the claim that we are not a neutral platform, after all we’re NGOs and we have views that might be difficult for some people to be seen to be associating with,” she conceded.
Traditionally media attention during both the WEF and the Public Eye has focused on demonstrations.
The more violent they have been, the more coverage they have received.
Last year, for the first time, the Swiss authorities gave permission for an official demonstration against the WEF to be held in Davos.
The protest ended in confusion and violence due to a standoff between protesters and police.
However, this year no official protest is being planned – an indication, according to Behrens, that organisers of previous years’ marches could not agree on how to deal with potential violence.
“Some organisers clearly wanted to call for a peaceful demonstration, others didn’t,” she said.
“In the end the two sides simply couldn’t agree on how to find a solution to the question of violence.”
swissinfo, Jonathan Summerton
The World Economic Forum takes place in Davos from January 21-25.
The Public Eye will also take place in Davos from January 21-23.
When the Public Eye started in 2000, its focus was on the WEF as an institution, but last year it shifted its attention to include bosses of multinationals attending the Forum.
In 2003 the WEF also launched its own platform for bringing together political and business leaders with NGOs – the Open Forum.