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Last Updated: Monday, 22 January 2007, 23:32 GMT
Q&A: World Economic Forum 2007
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The great and the good meet every year in Davos

Every year at the end of January, the heads of the world's leading companies travel to the Swiss mountain resort of Davos.

They come for a week of networking and debate at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. So what is it all about?


What is the World Economic Forum?

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

Its main event is the annual meeting, running this year from 24 to 28 January.

The five days are filled with discussions, lectures and workshops. The leaders of many of the world's largest companies are joined by top politicians, artists, academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and campaigners from organisations such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International.

Bono and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Davos in 2006
Davos, where the famous meet the powerful

Their 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 Doha in Qatar, Santiago de Chile, St Petersburg in Russia and Dalian in China.

What are they talking about?

This year's big theme is "The Shifting Power Equation".

But don't be fooled by the lofty - if not vague - title.

The 2,400 participants from 90 countries are debating the nitty-gritty of the world's challenges: climate change, terrorism, the tensions in the Middle East and Korea, globalisation, worldwide job insecurity, the rise of Asia's economic giants, technical innovation, the web 2.0 revolution and much more.

Some sessions are just platforms for powerful people to put forward their ideas, others are intense workshops that help chief executives to guide their companies through troubled waters.

With so many powerful people in one place, don't they just get together to divide up the world?

Davos has attracted plenty of conspiracy theories, but the event is really just a very high-powered talking shop.

Brad Pit and Angelina Jolie at the World Economic Forum in 2006
Stars like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie will be absent this year

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

This year German Chancellor and G8 chairwoman Angela Merkel will meet Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to explore ways to resolve the latest crisis in the Middle East.

And more than 30 trade ministers will get together on the sidelines in the hope of agreeing a new timetable for global trade talks.

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

Don't forget: this is not a meeting solely for business tycoons. Many participants are social entrepreneurs, and politicians and business people from poorer countries. They relish the opportunity to make their case and meet the people who have the money to help.

So who are these famous people coming to Davos?

The list of Davos participants reads like a who's-who of business and politics.

Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the bosses of corporate giants like BP, Coca-Cola, Intel and Volkswagen will all join the crowd thronging the labyrinthine conference centre.

Social entrepreneurs compare notes at a summit in the run-up to Davos
Social Entrepreneurs are making their case in Davos

In recent years, organisers have cut down a bit on the number of politicians coming to the event, with the forum rediscovering its focus on business.

Still, 24 heads of state or government - including UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and South African president Thabo Mbeki - are heading to the Swiss mountains.

Highly noticeable, though, is this year's absence of showbiz glamour.

In 2006, participants and photographers were swarming to catch a glimpse of stars like Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Richard Gere and Michael Douglas.

None of them are expected in Davos this year. Gossip columnists will have to focus on super model Claudia Schiffer and rock star and anti-poverty campaigner Bono instead.

How do they manage to attract all these people?

The forum is the brainchild of Swiss Professor Klaus Schwab.

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?

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 about "improving the state of the world".

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.

Issues like climate change found their way onto the forum's agenda well before they became part of many corporate mission statements.

Davos also has a rival - the World Social Forum - which brings together thousands of anti-globalisation and poverty campaigners.

Running from 20 to 25 January this year, the World Social Forum is being held in Nairobi, Kenya.

Participants are championing a highly diverse range of issues - from land rights to development issues.




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