27 January 2008

The Big Swiss Talking Shop

Every year in late January the great and the good, but especially the rich and very rich gather in a small Swiss Alpine resort called Davos for the "World Economic Forum" (WEF). Every year it makes the news, and we learn from an ever increasing media coverage the names of all the famous people who are well-known and wealthy enough to be invited. But what we don't learn from our newspapers and electronic media is what actually goes on in Davos.

Well, we are told that there are many "discussion forums" and "workshops", as well as "project group meetings", and each of them is sporting a bunch of names we know from politics, big business or other areas, like the arts, culture, entertainment or NGOs. But what are they actually doing and discussing in Davos? And is there ever anything real coming from it? Anything that has a positive impact on the world?

If one looks at the WEF website, one can well get the impression that this is the forum that does have all the answers to all the questions, and therefore all the power to make the world a better place. How come than that there are still wars and oppression, poverty, under-development, hunger and starvation on this planet? If all the great and good meet in Davos every year to see the light and get things right, why is so much going wrong?

The answer is really quite simple. Despite all the power and money that is assembled every year in Davos, the "World Economic Forum" is really not more than a very exclusive and expensive big Swiss talking shop. It gives participants a few days off their regular job, be it prime minister, pop star or CEO of a bank or large multi-national company, and gives the rest of us the impression that they care and that - in the remoteness of the snowy Alpine landscape - "something is done" to solve the world's problems.

But even though the WEF is meeting every year since 1971, with hundreds of leaders talking for thousands of hours and producing large piles of studies and position papers, the state of our planet has gradually worsened since, politically as well as economically. However, the worst decline is that of the environment. Despite clear warnings from scientists and many serious studies, global warming was allowed to happen, because the great and good, powerful and mighty leaders of the world do not care. They are more concerned with short-term profits than with the long-term survival of the human race and the state of the planet.

Between them the political leaders and business executives who meet annually in Davos are well able to change the world. And they have done so. The globalisation of trade and industry is a direct result of the WEF, and so is the ever increasing domination of our lives by electronic media and the tons of uncontrolled advertisment they dump on us. Most of the rich people who meet in Davos "to solve the problems of the world" are the very same who create them, by flooding the globe with all what is bad for us, from junk food and alcohol to polluting cars, and from mindless entertainment to senseless global tourism. The political leaders who attend the annual gathering are those who are happy to allow all this to happen, in the name of the free flow of capital, free trade and rich men's rules.

And you would need to be a rich man - or a very wealthy company or organisation - to be part of the WEF. Each member pays a basic annual membership fee of $ 12,500 and a $ 6,250 Annual Meeting fee. However, to take part in deciding the agendas of the Annual Meeting and the regional meetings, a member must pay $ 250,000 a year to be an Institutional Partner and/or Knowledge Partner, and
$ 78,000 to be an Annual Meeting Partner. So there is no shortage of money at the WEF, which has an annual income of more than $ 100 million (about a third from membership fees), even though it is supposed to be a not-for-profit organisation.

Founded in 1971 by the German-born Swiss economist Prof. Klaus Martin Schwab (right), the WEF did start with relatively small meetings in Davos, but has meanwhile become the world's largest international networking organisation. Besides the Annual Meeting in Davos in January there are now also regular regional meetings for Africa, East Asia, Europe & Central Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Russia, as well as an Annual Meeting of the "New Champions", which are companies from China, India and various developing countries.

The main 1000 companies in the world are invited to the WEF, based on annual revenues of more than $ 1 billion. This leads inevitably to under-representation of companies from poorer countries. The WEF claims that now 200 new companies, mainly from the developing world, are invited to join the WEF membership and events, but they have not made much of an impact yet. At the Annual Meeting, each January in Davos, 39% are from Europe and 36% from the USA, which gives the developed countries of the West a 75% majority. However, these 75% of WEF members represent only about 17% of the world's population.

Even though the WEF is anxious to give the impression of transparency, openness and general benevolence, there are plenty of critics who question those intentions.
Meanwhile the usually very quiet resort of Davos has seen protests against the WEF, organised by anti-globalisation campaigners. Due to the cold temperatures and the efficiency of the Swiss police and army they are however relatively small and peaceful (as the picture of this year's "Mooning against Mammom" in Davos shows), compared with the protests that accompany now for many years the annual G-7/G-8 summits.

A main point of criticism are the so-called "informal" meetings and workshops that take place in and around Davos during the week-long Annual Meeting. While all the official WEF lectures and debates are public and open to the media, all "informal" events are strictly private. And those are the meetings that really matter, where politicians and business executives forge friendships and close deals with far-reaching consequences. It is said that Bill Clinton was endorsed by the WEF before he ran for President, and another politician long linked with the WEF is Britain's ex Prime Minister Tony Blair, now one of the 23 members of the WEF Foundation Board (where he rubs shoulders with people like former UN secretary general Kofi Anan, Queen Rani of Jordan and Irish politician turned businessman Peter Sutherland).

Every year in January millions of words are written and broadcasted about the WEF, and the paparazzi have a field day with so many famous faces gathered in a small town like Davos. For a week we all hear about the "World Economic Forum", and then follows another year of absolute silence, during which we are left wondering what is going on. Maybe it is time to face the facts and realise that not much is going on at all. The world is spinning out of control fast, while greedy businessmen and politicians are sharing the spoils as long as there is time. And then - in late January - they all meet in Davos for a week. If one would need to put the essence of this annual meeting into a brief statement or headline, it would only need two words to be described: Money talks.

The Emerald Islander


earthgirl2 said...

i don't understand? In the photo were they experimenting with some new method of capturing gas?


Not quite. They were probably releasing some instead... :)

The way of showing one's bare behind in this way is known as "mooning" and goes apparently back to ancient times when it was done as a provocation to an enemy. (If you watch the famous film "Braveheart" you can see the Scots doing it to the English...)

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