The Davos show

Published : Feb 25, 2005 00:00 IST

It was not business as usual at the World Economic Forum at Davos, which suggests that business itself may not be going along as usual in the big wide world.

IT has become well known as the annual meeting of the club of those who run the world, or think they do. Several years ago, an entrepreneurial impresario came up with the idea of developing a sort of select and exclusive trade fair of the world's business and political elite in the Alpine ski resort of Davos in Switzerland. It turned out that Klaus Schwab had come up with a winner, at least in his own terms, as his brainchild emerged as the big bash that the rich and powerful attended to network among themselves and even wanted to be seen at.

The annual meeting of the World Economic Forum became the focus of international attention, as the bosses of the world's largest and most powerful multinational corporations rubbed shoulders with leaders of the developed world as well as heads of state and Ministers from developing countries anxious to attract foreign investors. The organisers of this meeting and the participants themselves usually made no attempt to conceal - and even flaunted - their bias for large capital and their belief that unregulated capital and liberalised markets would deliver prosperity for all. Thus, the usual demands of lower taxes and less regulation, greater freedom for large capital and more flexible labour laws, and of course ever more protection for foreign investors, have become the chants heard at each World Economic Forum.

In the process, the Davos meeting also became the symbol of corporate globalisation and the nexus between big business and political leaders. The anti-globalisation movement specifically targeted the annual Davos meeting. At the peak of this movement, the protests were so widespread and marked that the meeting received more undesirable publicity than the positive press, which its organisers had come to take for granted.

More significantly, the World Economic Forum spawned its other, the alternative meeting called the World Social Forum, held at approximately the same time every year. The purpose of this was to highlight the concerns and aspirations of ordinary people, rather than big business and governments looking for ways to support big business. This began in Porto Alegre in Brazil, but has since become more a movement than just a meeting, and the Forum held in Mumbai last year revealed its huge potential for mobilisation and getting very different groups to work together, as well as its ability to become a people's carnival of huge proportions. This year, again the World Social Forum is being held in Brazil, and has attracted more than 120,000 people, compared to the 2,000 odd participants who have shelled out large sums simply to register for the Davos meeting.

The atmosphere also has been completely different in the two meetings. The World Social Forum tends to be a chaotic but joyous and always vibrant mix of many different kinds of people, organisations, countries with meetings and discussions competing with musical performances, street shows, exhibitions and other events. The World Economic Forum, by contrast, is boring: a closed shop of the elite, where the business suits dominate as corporate leaders and government representatives network discreetly to influence one another as much as possible.

More than $6 million is spent by the World Economic Forum on security alone for this one meeting in Davos, and the main meeting halls are really not much better than a series of concrete bunkers designed for maximum protection of the inmates. Nevertheless, leaders from across the world, and especially from developing countries, continue to flock to Davos, not really to listen to the various big names but to use the opportunity to attract some potential investors, discuss trade and other policy issues.

Even this year, for example, large numbers of leaders arrived at Davos, from Tony Blair to Thabo Mbeki, from the newly elected Victor Yushchenko of Ukraine and Mahmoud Abbas of Palestine to President Lula of Brazil (who came straight from the World Social Forum).

Nevertheless, it still seems that this particular idea is now running out of steam. Some of the absences were more telling than the presences: from the U.S., only the Secretary of Labour and the Assistant Secretary of State; from other European countries such as France, video conferencing rather than physical presence; from many developing countries, only a limited involvement. The Chinese had a large delegation, but they seemed to have come to listen rather than to display any of their wares. The Indian Commerce Minister and Minister for Science and Technology did attend, but finally the Prime Minister seemed to have realised that he had better things to do at home.

MORE than this, the Davos meeting no longer seems to be able to grab media headlines automatically, or even stir up any reaction stronger than yawns among people across the world. This may be why the event this year was designed rather differently in terms of inviting and showcasing media and film stars rather than the usual suspects of politicians and businessmen only. Clearly, adding the more supposedly glamorous of these groups - such as George Soros and the Bills (Gates and Clinton) may no longer be adequate.

Thus, some of the guest list could almost have reflected a pop music or film awards function: Angelina Jolie and U2 singer Bono reciting the woes of poverty and Africa; Sharon Stone pledging money for disease control; Lionel Ritchie, Peter Gabriel and Richard Gere turning heads in the lobby; to name only a few. And the focus of the meeting itself was also quite a break from the past, with sessions on combating world poverty; fighting not only the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) but also malaria; global warming and the plight of Africa. Not only were the topics different, but even the discussion was apparently much more touchy-feely, full of concern for the downtrodden and openly redolent of the milk of human kindness. In fact, some of the discussions and statements seemed almost to be borrowed from the "other" event in Porto Alegre, with concerns about growing inequality and joblessness actually being put on the table.

When a gathering that was designed to be a quiet place where big business and government leaders could get together to do business and work out deals turns into an outward orientated charm offensive with the spotlight on the media stars, something has clearly gone wrong. This is certainly not business as usual, which suggests that business itself may not be going along as usual in the big wide world.

Perhaps it may be reading too much into the actions of the organisers of the World Economic Forum, to see in these rather desperate manoeuvres some indication of broader problems at work in international capitalism. But it is certainly the case that if the Davos meeting is at all a symptom of the degree of cosy consistency prevailing among the world's elite, then the most prevalent tendency today is not complacency but an almost fierce need for legitimisation and popular approval. If this is really the case, the World Social Forum and the anti-globalisation movement may have been more successful than is generally thought, if only in creating a greater sense of insecurity and the need to be loved on the part of the most powerful people in the world.

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