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World Economic Forum summit gets underway in Davos

Police have been deployed in unprecedented numbers at this year's Davos summit

(Keystone)

The 31st annual World Economic Forum summit is getting underway in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

Over the next six days, thousands of the private organisation's members and guests will discuss topics ranging from the economic slowdown in the United States to the future of gene technology.

The forum has come a long way since its launch 30 years ago when it was a purely European affair. Now it is the world's most important business summit and attracts top political and business leaders from around the globe.

The leading political names this year include the South African President, Thabo Mbeki, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, and the French finance minister, Laurent Fabius.

The Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss and the economics minister, Pascal Couchepin, will also be present.

Each year, the World Economic Forum summit focuses on certain themes. This year it is "Sustaining Growth and Bridging the Divides".

"The most important topic is the deceleration of the US economy, and how to ensure a soft landing," says the Forum's managing director, Claude Smadja.

When the forum met last year, there were few clouds on the economic horizon as the US boom continued and dotcom companies seemed to promise huge profits and returns on equity.

But many dotcoms have since failed, profit warnings abound and tech stocks have long since lost their shine. This will concentrate minds at the Forum.

"After the speculative bubble we'll be trying to extract the enduring elements of the new technological revolution," says Smadja.

The second major theme of the summit, "Bridging the Divides", will address the inequalities that still exist between developed countries and poorer states. Critics say the Forum is little more than a rich man's club that excludes the developing world.

Smadja shows some sympathy for this point of view and admits that the process of globalisation has so far failed to rid the world of inequalities in health and education.

"We know that globalisation is not working as it should," he says. "And we know it's creating quite a few problems but we have to see how we can make globalisation better deliver the goods."

He's quick to add, however, that social progress can only come with economic growth.

It's not an argument that will cut much ice with anti-globalisation protesters who are expected to turn up in strength during the summit.

Last year's conference was marred by violence between police and protesters as the then US president, Bill Clinton, addressed delegates in the conference centre.

Smadja makes a clear distinction between constructive critics of the Forum and those who resort to violence. "Those who have serious concerns are fully integrated into the annual meeting. Outside are would be trouble makers who should be dealt with by the Swiss authorities."

Police will be out in force this year to ensure the smooth running of the conference, which ends next Tuesday, but they say that violence cannot be ruled out.

Regardless of what happens outside the Conference Centre, the delegates inside will continue to discuss the major economic and social questions of the day and try to set the agenda for the coming year.

by Michael Hollingdale


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