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WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM: All Eyes Turn to the East

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jan 18 2006 (IPS) - The World Economic Forum, which hosts an annual gathering of the world’s business and political elite in the Swiss ski resort of Davos, will place particular emphasis this year on the rise of China and India as global economic powers.

At a press conference held Wednesday in Geneva to unveil the programme for the Jan. 25-29 meeting, Klaus Schwab, founder and chief executive of the World Economic Forum (WEF), announced that one of the key issues will be “the shift of the centre of gravity from the West to the East.”

According to Schwab, this shift will have both geo-economic and geo-political repercussions. “We see its first consequences in the increased competition for natural resources,” he said.

Although the economic expansion of these two Asian nations, particularly China, has been amply reflected by economic indicators and expert analyses for over a decade, the fact that the WEF has chosen to place priority on the region confirms its status as a new primary focus for transnational corporations.

In contrast to past years, the WEF’s activities this year devote scant attention to Africa, while events focused on Latin America and the Caribbean are practically non-existent. Of the 735 business leaders who have confirmed their attendance at the Davos meet, there are a mere four from South Africa, two from Brazil and one from Mexico.

Throughout the previous decades, the WEF, founded in 1971, has largely served to bring together government and political figures with business leaders and economic experts who espouse the neoliberal economic model.

Schwab maintained that the WEF “plays a very special role in today’s world,” because governments, business and civil society working together can resolve issues that are specific to a global agenda.

But Andreas Missbach of The Berne Declaration, a Swiss non-governmental organisation, takes a very different view of the Davos meet, which he considers “illegitimate”.

“It is not illegitimate because of the fact that business executives and the heads of big companies meet together, because we also hold meetings with our networks. That is normal,” he said.

“The problem is that it is not only the heads of companies who sit down to negotiate, but also political leaders and the heads of international organisations,” Missbach told IPS.

And at this get-togethers, it is the large corporations that set the agenda, while the politicians only figure as minority partners. “That is the problem with Davos,” he said.

A record number of top-level business executives will be attending this year’s meet. “We had to close registration, quite some time ago. Everybody wants to come to Davos,” declared Schwab.

In addition to the emergence of China and India, the WEF will place special emphasis this year on the evolution of new technologies. In this regard, Schwab stressed that in today’s world, “knowledge has become a commodity.”

In keeping with tradition, the Davos Forum will bring together economic analysts from major companies, particularly banks and financial institutions, to share their preliminary diagnoses of international economic development and hazard predictions for the coming year.

With regard to economic development, Schwab remarked that “the last two years have been very good years,” but acknowledged the existence of a “number of vulnerabilities.”

“What is happening today in some stock exchanges shows a certain nervousness about the future of economic development in the world, he noted, referring to the fluctuations in recent days on the Japanese stock market.

What remains to be seen, he added, is “how much these imbalances can be absorbed in our systems.”

Missbach, for his part, stressed that these are extremely important issues that should not be “privatised under the custody of the big companies,” but rather discussed in “legitimate” forums like the United Nations and other international institutions.

According to the Berne Declaration activist, the WEF meet is first and foremost a series of negotiations in the luxury suites of big hotels in Davos, where private meetings are held between companies and, even worse, he said, between corporations and politicians: “That is the substance of Davos, and it is totally illegitimate.”

Swiss NGOs have criticised the government for covering the high security costs involved in gathering such large numbers of prominent government, political and business figures in Davos.

Andre Schneider, one of the general directors of the WEF in charge of operations, confirmed that the Swiss authorities will be shelling out some 6.15 million dollars for security.

The Swiss army will deploy 5,500 soldiers, divided among 3,300 land troops and 2,200 air troops, to handle security. The authorities have stressed, however, that the job of controlling any anti-forum demonstrations will fall to the police.

In any case, Swiss NGOs have decided that they will not hold protests in Davos itself this year, but will stage their demonstrations in other parts of the country instead.

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