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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 08:25 GMT
Changing times for WEF conference
by BBC World's Nik Gowing

With a mix of respect and perhaps jealousy, the 3,000 global movers and shakers in business, politics, culture and the media who manage to secure an invitation to the annual World Economic Forum (WEF) were once labelled 'Davos Man'.

Since 1971, they and their predecessors virtually took over the elegant Swiss ski resort of Davos in the last weekend of January.


Business chairmen and chief executives cut deals. Political leaders used the unique Swiss surroundings to search for solutions to their most intractable problems

Largely behind closed doors they debated cutting edge issues of the globalised economy, technology and challenges to world order.

Business chairmen and chief executives cut deals. Political leaders used the unique Swiss surroundings to search for solutions to their most intractable problems of war, the environment or even just basic co-existence.

But the terror attacks on 11 September and the apparently synchronised global recession required a deft refocusing of the Davos principles.

'Exceptional times'

With fears that many US business and political leaders would simply decline to travel to Switzerland, the WEF's board moved swiftly last autumn.

As the Forum says: "For exceptional times, an exceptional programme for Davos-New York".

Waldorf Astoria, New York
The Waldorf will be full of networkers
So for four days from Thursday, the confined corridors of New York's famous hotel, the Waldorf Astoria, will be transformed into a crush of name droppers and networkers.

The focus of the Forum will be "Leadership in Fragile Times".

But with the massive bankruptcy of Enron, the US congressional pressures on auditors Arthur Andersen and many corporate failures of the past year, a sizeable number of familiar corporate faces from the past won't even qualify to be here.

Not only are the repercussions of the global terror threat a central issue. So is the very credibility of corporate governance in the world's biggest economy.

A fragile world

Business life is under the microscope, and so are all the many unattained hopes and expectations for globalisation and the dot.com revolution raised at Davos in the past few years.


Business life is under the microscope, and so are all the many unattained hopes and expectations for globalisation

For once there is also a sense of fragility, not complacency among the biggest of big names gathered here.

They have discovered they no longer have a monopoly on wisdom. Some of them have shown themselves to be flawed.

The strongest voices here will be those who have found ways to survive recession and just stay in business during the year of fragility.

Globalisation debate

This year, the core focus will be restoring economic growth of some kind, after the burst of the dot.com bubble, along with debating the new costs of national and corporate security in the aftermath of 11 September.

And what about all those hopes and aspirations for globalisation?

A protester prepares
Protesters will march down the streets of New York
A test of the inclusivity of the Forum will be the level of debate involving NGOs, religious leaders and anti-globalisation forces.

It is tempting to view the anti-globalisation lobby as just those who take to the streets and - as in Davos - smash up McDonald's or confront the riot police.

But the events - business failures and tragedies of the past year - have shown that they have concerns that deserve a hearing, equal to those of the 1,000 most powerful corporations.

Last year, some of the outside environmental and globalisation lobbyists invited into the Davos meeting were incensed by the way they were treated.

This year the organisers promise greater sensitivity and greater inclusivity. Many are not convinced and have declined involvement.

Protesters will make their voices heard on the streets in New York. But as 2001 showed, of equal importance are the voices at the rival gathering of anti-globalisation interests in Porto Alegre, Brazil, where there is no corporate wealth on show.

A new mood in New York?

The move to New York is either a smart move for anxious times or a disastrous move that many Davos hands say will kill dead the informal networking spirit that has given the forum such renown.

Then again, the world changed after 11 September, and with it so many approaches and attitudes, including those of the power brokers here.

With the time pressures of modern political and business life, it could be that many can no longer afford the trek from Zurich into the mountains for what was once a six-day gathering.

Yet, those privileged enough to be included on the invitation list will certainly still feel themselves to be part of something unique.

Time to 'schmooze'?

Given the proliferation of international conferences, what is the attraction of the WEF?

The cynics - and those not there - will say "to schmooze".

WEF people say it is to brainstorm, freewheel and try to chart the increasingly tempestuous waters ahead - if that is possible.

The lucky ones on the invitation list have navigated unidentifiable barriers and qualification thresholds set by the Forum organisers to be allowed into the high-security sanctum of the conference centre.

The less fortunate - who believe themselves to be qualified - spend much of the year trying to use every ruse possible to secure the most sought-after white cards.

The spirit of Davos past

The regulars identify themselves by sight. In past years in Davos, they learned about the perils of sheet ice and the insanity of wearing the best leather-soled shoes in one of Switzerland's premier ski resorts.

Mountain range
The mountains of Davos will give way to Manhattan
They also discovered that even the smartest BMW or Mercedes becomes a redundant liability when a metre of snow falls in 36 hours and shuts the roads up from Zurich.

The terrain of midtown Manhattan, the unusually balmy winter weather and a conference confined to a single hotel will remove such risks.

But this year there is nervousness of a different kind. After the explicit warnings from the US Attorney General, John Ashcroft, and the US Director for Homeland Security, Tom Ridge, about the hidden capacities of al Qaeda, there remains here an unspoken anxiety.

What might be the targets of the covert threats from Osama Bin Laden's thousands of disciples, as mentioned by President George W Bush in his State of the Union Speech?

'Participation'

Many corporate men and women representing trillions of dollars of business wealth expect to be here as 'Davos tribesmen' almost as of right.

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum
Professor Schwab envisaged a meeting where all could mix
Where else could you bump into the hedge fund investor George Soros?

Where else could you end up sitting next to a foreign minister or a corporate chairman worth billions?

One basic rule: always have that instant question or topic of conversation ready for the big name suddenly standing at your shoulders.

The founder of the WEF, Professor Klaus Schwab, envisaged an environment where corporate bosses, political leaders, trade unionists, as well as authors and journalists could mix comfortably.

But will that work in New York, with jammed streets and the frustrations of moving speedily through this city?

Participation will be the key.

"We are not a conference" the organisers have always emphasised. "There is no preaching from the platform". There are no "delegates" or "attendees". We are all "participants".

Nik Gowing will be chairing a WEF World Debate on BBC World on 2 February at 2210 GMT, which is repreated on 3 February at 0910 and 1820 GMT.

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