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Last Updated: Monday, 21 January 2008, 13:54 GMT
Q&A: World Economic Forum 2008
Davos Valley on 18 January 2008
Davos - good for skiing and networking

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?

According to its motto, the WEF is "committed to improving the state of the world".

Its main event is the annual meeting, running this year from 23 to 27 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.

Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Thabo Mbeki, Tony Blair, Bono, Olusegun Obasanjo
Where else will Clinton, Gates, Mbeki, Blair, Bono, Obasanjo share a stage

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 such as Cancun in Mexico, Cape Town, Istanbul, Kuala Lumpur, St Petersburg and Tianjin in China.

What are they talking about?

Every year the annual meeting has a "big theme". This year it's The Power of Collaborative Innovation.

Yes, it sounds lofty, but don't be fooled by the vague title.

The agenda is a long list of hard topics, dominated by the turmoil in the global economy and political tensions.

The organisers believe that "collaborative innovation" is one way how global leaders can tackle these challenges.

The 2,500 participants from 88 countries will talk about terrorism, climate change, water scarcity, hedge funds, corruption, the Middle East, the effectiveness of carbon trading 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.

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

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.

Bill Gates and Bono have used the forum to launch global initiatives to fight poverty and epidemics in the developing world.

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, Volkswagen and Nissan will all join the crowd thronging the labyrinthine conference centre.

WEF logo
The great and the good meet every year 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, 27 heads of state or government are expected in the Swiss mountains - including UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf.

One group of participants, though, is notable by its absence. Two years ago, showbiz stars such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Richard Gere and Michael Douglas stole the headlines.

The organisers are loath to admit it, but they have clearly toned down the guest list.

Yes, there are still some big names in Davos: rock stars Bono and Peter Gabriel, as well as Oscar-winning actress Emma Thompson. Not because of their celebrity status, though, but to provide a platform for their campaigns for good causes.

Gossip columnists will hope they can spot a few famous faces on the sidelines of the forum. Last year super model Claudia Schiffer graced several parties, this year Naomi Campbell is expected to pull the crowds.

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 they are at the forefront of persuading companies to live up to their social responsibility.

WEF founder Klaus Schwab warned back in the 1990s of a globalisation that served only a few - well before the anti-globalisation movement got under way.

And last year the forum made sure that business leaders tackle climate change.

In previous years, globalisation critics organised a grass roots event to run in parallel, called the World Social Forum. This year they will focus on a "day of action for peace and social justice" on Saturday, 26 January, with events around the world.

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