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Last Updated: Monday, 23 January 2006, 11:15 GMT
Q&A: World Economic Forum 2006
Every year at the end of January, top politicians from around the world descend on the Swiss mountain resort of Davos to mingle with bosses of the world's leading companies at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) - but what is it all about?

What is the World Economic Forum?

Angelina Jolie at the World Economic Forum in 2005 - ©Swiss Image
Angelia Jolie is one of the stars mingling with bosses and politicians

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

It's a week of discussions, lectures and workshops, where business leaders and politicians are joined by artists, academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and campaigners from organisations such as Oxfam and Islamic Relief.

The programme is packed, with sometimes eight or nine events 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, Sao Paulo, Sharm al-Sheikh, Kiev 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.

Worker attaching WEF logs in the conference hall - ©Swiss Image
More than 2,300 participants will crowd the Davos congress hall

But this event is mainly about exchanging ideas, and the discussions can be surprisingly frank.

Don't forget: many participants come from poorer countries and relish the opportunity to make their case and meet the people who have the money to help.

Last year the Irish rock star and anti-poverty campaigner Bono lavished praise on Davos and participants like UK prime minister Tony Blair and Microsoft boss Bill Gates.

Hmmm, what are they talking about?

The official "theme" of the Davos meeting - 'The Creative Imperative' - sounds bland, like in most years.

Organisers say the forum's unique creativity helps everybody "to make sense of a rapidly changing world and to connect the seemingly unconnected that joins us all in a common cause".

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

The real conference agenda, though, is not quite that woolly: The emergence of China and India, high energy prices, the impact of globalisation, world trade, poverty and other global challenges dominate the five days of Davos.

Business leaders can join a series of workshops to discuss what risks their companies face, and how to confront them.

Broadening the horizon are softer topics such as 'what is your cultural IQ?', 'colour physiology' and contemporary art in China.

No doubt the lunch with Hollywood star Michael Douglas and rock legend Peter Gabriel on 'Celebrity inspired action' will be oversubscribed quickly.

Bono is due in Davos again, and last year's headturner Angelina Jolie has promised to return as well.

Angelina, Bono ... wow ... who else is attending?

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

This year a record number of top business people will come to Davos, among them Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Sir Richard Branson, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Bryn, and the bosses of corporate giants like Intel, Coca-Cola, Cisco, Renault/Nissan and L'Oreal.

However there will be fewer politicians in the Swiss mountains than in past years. The organisers say that is deliberate, with Davos getting back to focusing on business. Still, the list of top politicians ranges from Germany's new chancellor Angela Merkel to Afghanistan's president Hamid Karzai, US Secretary of State Condolezza Rice is expected to make an appearance and there will be about 15 heads of state or government in Davos, and dozens of cabinet ministers.

On the sidelines about 30 trade ministers are holding talks to get the stalled global trade negotiations back on track.

How do they manage to attract all these people?

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

Activists painting a mural for the World Social Forum in Caracas
The World Social Forum wants to develop alternatives to capitalism

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.

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.

However there is a rival event, the World Social Forum, bringing together thousands of anti-globalisation and poverty campaigners.

This year, though, will see three World Social Forums. The first in Mali has just finished, and the second in Venezuela runs at the same time as Davos.

A planned World Social Forum in Pakistan has been delayed, but an event scheduled for Bangkok appears to have been cancelled.




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