A 34-year-old Alpine ritual gears up again with the World Economic Forum convening in Davos

Each January, in the dead of winter, a curious rite of globalism springs to life: the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos. A huge and amorphous happening rather than a single, focused event, the meeting brings business, political, and (increasingly) cultural figures to this upscale Swiss resort for a five-day mountain jam session, devoted to discussing themes of globalization while also representing its apotheosis. This latest rendition starts on Wednesday, January 26, and ends the following Sunday. It is not just the provincial locale or the altitude of Davos – whose clean-air sanatoria provided the rarified setting for Thomas Mann’s great novel «The Magic Mountain» – that gives this midwinter gathering its special cachet. It is a chance for some 2,250 high-flyers from 96 countries this year to meet and network, as well as debate and pontificate; operating on two levels, its informal elements provide much of its appeal. It is a very private affair involving some very public figures, and an opportunity for things to happen – side meetings, deals, initiatives – that otherwise might not. In this sense, it reflects the host nation’s tradition of discreet and neutral power-broking and conference hosting. As a counter to its exclusive and exclusionary tag, this year’s meeting, robustly titled «Taking Responsibility for Tough Choices,» takes a decidedly pro-active discussion list into the long weekend. It targets a number of «tough issues» for discussion (such as China, Climate Change, Global Governance and Poverty). World poverty is not likely to be eradicated next week, or global warming to intrude too heavily on those carving S-turns on the frigid slopes outside the Congress Center in the off-hours, but at least such issues figure on the ambitious agenda. Widening net This annual tradition began 34 years ago along very different lines. In 1971, Klaus Schwab, a business professor, brought together some European chief executives to discuss ways of learning from US management techniques. The «Davos Symposium» was later rechristened the Annual Meeting, and while ballooning in size, it also shifted its stated emphasis from investment to wider development priorities, especially since 2000 with anti-globalization backlashes, the technology crash and, of course, September 11 all weighing on the world. Buzz-phrases like «global citizenship,» «collaborative frameworks» and «stakeholders» now abound. With new presidencies in Ukraine and the Palestinian Authority, and a re-elected Bush administration in the US, Prof. Schwab said this week that «pragmatic optimism» is now called for. To generate talking points, the WEF will open this year with a «Global Town Hall,» aiming to be both current and more inclusive. The recent Asian tsunamis underscored the fast pace of change and the terrible risks of contemporary life, but also generated hopes for more concerted disaster relief. Focal point though it is, the Annual Meeting is far from the only activity of WEF, a Geneva-based private foundation. Like a spider web, its reach continues to expand. The Forum of Young Global Leaders, for achievers under 40, is one; among its recent inductees is Stelios Hadji-Ioannou of easyJet. In an effort to beef up its intellectual weight, it has teamed up with university institutions, notably Harvard and the London School of Economics, to carry out joint research on world issues. A recent study, by the WEF’s Global Corporate Citizenship Initiative, calls for more public-private partnerships in tackling world problems. Taking the world’s pulse through polls is another aim. It has also hosted regional meetings to push cooperative agendas. One was the South-East Europe Meeting held in Athens in May 2003, which spent several days pushing change in Southeastern Europe prior to the EU’s Thessaloniki summit. Another, a «peace and reconciliation» meeting, was held in Jordan last year. The Annual Meeting has hosted a sprinkling of memorable developments. Greece has figured prominently at some. Andreas Papandreou and Turgut Ozal, Greek and Turkish prime ministers, gave rise to the «Spirit of Davos» that eased bilateral tensions in the late 1980s. Three years ago, foreign ministers George Papandreou and Ismail Cem launched exploratory bilateral talks on the WEF sidelines. Others have brought together North and South Korean leaders, F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, and Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, as well as UN initiatives. Political leaders also flock there, notably then President Bill Clinton; US Vice President Dick Cheney appeared last year, dampening some of the anti-US sentiment over Iraq. This year more than 20 heads of state or government will attend, while the gray suits will be livened up by the likes of Richard Gere, Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone, Bono, and Paulo Coelho. Corporate focus Yet the heart and soul of the Davos gatherings remains corporate. The six co-chairs this year, among whom are Microsoft’s Bill Gates, are all multinational figures. Invitations to this creme de la creme of world finance go to firms with annual revenues exceeding $1 billion, although 200 smaller businesses are now also present. Naturally, the transatlantic presence is strong, with US and European companies accounting for up to 75 percent of the 1,000 or so corporate participants. Membership is not a well-advertised element; click on the «Members» icon of the WEF website and you are blocked from a restricted area that requires a password. Even invitees do not get paid. Quite the contrary; just getting in the door costs over $20,000, including annual WEF membership and meeting fees. Agenda-setting Institutional or Knowledge Partners pay up to a quarter-million dollars. Unsurprisingly, the WEF generates over $100 million yearly. In recent years, Greece has fielded a modest corporate presence, by way of Carrefour Marinopoulos; Ceres Hellenic Shipping; Consolidated Contractors; Herakles Cement; Ioannou and Paraskevaides Overseas Ltd; Marinopoulos Brothers and Titan Cement. Recent efforts to diversify have brought more international organizations and NGOs to Davos, over 50 this year. The latter are an occasionally itchy presence; some, like Amnesty International, are now regulars, but others, like Friends of the Earth, were not invited back after rocking the boat with sustainable development demands. Greenpeace attended for two years but then withdrew after disputes over auto emissions. The media can participate in formal events but are politely excluded from private meetings and workshops. This year, CNN will launch its «CNN Connects» discussion forum at Davos, focusing on Middle East elections. The WEF has weathered its share of growing pains and even the occasional scandal. Persistent criticism led to a counter-WEF, the World Social Forum, which draws activists to Porto Alegre, Brazil. In recent years, pitched street battles with protesters have formed a jarring counterpoint to the well-heeled discretion within the WEF walls, similar to protests that have greeted EU, G8 and other summits since 2000. In 2002, the meeting shifted to New York in a show of post-Sept. 11 solidarity, but the protests continued. And last year, one of its key figures, co-CEO Jose-Maria Figueres, a former president of Costa Rica, resigned after press reports revealed he was under (conflicting) contract as a corporate consultant. Since then Schwab has moved to tighten the reins over his creation. The WEF claims to be both a «catalyst for action» and a facilitator of collaboration. Is it more than the sum of its parts, and can it actually steer a vast collection of influential people, decision-makers in their own right, in a single, much less progressive, direction? The stated developmental objectives are too insistent to be mere window dressing, but the like-minded networking remains key. This may agitate its detractors, but it reflects the way the world is made to turn.