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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 16:13 GMT
Q&A: World Economic Forum 2005
Every year at the end of January, top politicians from around the world will descend on the Swiss mountain resort of Davos to mingle with the bosses of the world's leading companies at the "annual meeting" of the World Economic Forum - but what draws them all in?

What is the World Economic Forum?

Workers putting up a WEF sign ©World Economic Forum
Davos gets ready for the WEF

The WEF was set up to "contribute towards solving the problems of our age".

In Davos business leaders and politicians are joined by artists, academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and campaigners from organisations such as poverty action group Oxfam, or the African Women's Development Fund.

Their programme is packed with lectures, discussions and workshops - sometimes eight or nine running in parallel.

Apart from the talking, the forum is mainly a networking event, an opportunity to meet friends and rivals, and to get close to high-powered people.

The forum's annual meeting is usually held in Davos, but it has also branched out into a series of regional meetings in places like Cape Town, Warsaw, Delhi and Singapore.

Hold on, you can't con me. Isn't this the meeting where they decide how to run the world and exploit poor countries?

Err ... no, not really. There are a lot of myths and conspiracy theories about Davos, but when the chips are down it is essentially a talking shop.

Yes, there are private meetings and deals are struck. In 1994, for example, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat talked for hours and managed to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

But mostly this is about exchanging ideas and the discussions can be surprisingly frank.

And don't forget that many participants actually come from poorer countries, and relish the opportunity to make their case and meet the people who have the money to help.

Hmmm, what are they talking about?

As every year, the official "theme" of the meeting sounds fairly bland: "Taking responsibility for tough choices".

But the agenda stays close to current events: the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, climate change, Islam, poverty, US leadership and much more.

Business leaders will talk about investing in China, new technology trends and the 'corporate numbers game'.

Broadening the horizon are softer topics such as 'what makes us human', 'why rich countries can't buy happiness' and Asia's 'cool' teenagers.

And don't forget the 'cultural leaders dinner', with star turns from Richard Gere and Angelina Jolie.

Jolie, Gere? Not bad - who else is attending?

Bill Clinton at the WEF in Davos 2003 ©World Economic Forum
Former US president Bill Clinton is a WEF regular

The guest list reads like a cut-down version of the who-is-who of business and politics.

This year's forum will be attended by business people like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, George Soros, and the bosses of corporate giants like HP, Shell, BP, Nestle, Deutsche Bank, Unilever, Cisco, Pfizer, Novartis, Vodafone and many more.

The list of top politicians ranges from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki. All up, there will be about 20 heads of state or government in Davos, and some 70 top cabinet ministers.

The new Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, will be there (alongside three Israeli deputy prime ministers), and Ukraine's new leader, President Viktor Yushchenko, will come to Davos just days after being sworn in.

There is one glaring gap, though. From Washington only Robert Zoellick, the designated deputy secretary of state, is expected to show up.

Officially that's because many key members of President Bush's new cabinet have not been confirmed in their posts yet.

However, unlike in President Clinton's days the Bush administration has always been reluctant to send its officials to do some multilateral networking.

How do they manage to attract all these people?

Well, the forum is the brainchild of Swiss Professor Klaus Schwab.

Snow covered Davos village ©World Economic Forum
Davos has been the home to most of the WEF's annual meetings

In 1971 he invited European chief executives to Davos to discuss business strategy.

Over the years the event widened its agenda and attracted ever more prominent guests, which in turn made it interesting for yet more big names to come.

The forum is now run as a not-for-profit member-based organisation.

The paying members are about 1,000 big companies, while non-business participants attend meetings for free.

But ultimately it's all about boosting globalisation, isn't it?

Now this is a sore point.

The forum has been targeted repeatedly by anti-globalisation campaigners (although this year's demonstrations have been called off).

And there is a rival event, the World Social Forum, which brings together thousands of anti-globalisation and poverty campaigners in Brazil's Porto Alegre - at exactly the same time as the Davos meeting.

The organisers of the World Economic Forum, however, insist that their meetings are all about "improving the state of the world".

And they point to the fact that in the 1990s, well before the anti-globalisation movement got under way, WEF founder Klaus Schwab warned of a globalisation that serves only a few.

This year's closing session debates "when does the economy serve the people".

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