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Q&A: World Economic Forum 2009

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

But what is it all about?

The world is in turmoil and these people jet off for a week of fun in the snow - haven't they got anything better to do?

Well, they come for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum. And yes, it is fun - but not as we know it.

Bono at the World Economic Forum 2008
Stars like Bono use the forum to push their humanitarian agenda
Organisers say the forum is all about "improving the state of the world".

Indeed, business leaders are joined by top politicians, artists, academics, religious leaders, trade unionists, and campaigners from organisations such as Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty International.

The five days - from 28 January to 1 February - are filled with discussions, lectures and workshops.

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 such as Rio de Janeiro, Cape Town, Delhi, Dubai and Dalian in China.

But you are right, some people have been told they should not be there. President Obama, for example, has told several of his biggest hitters (and Davos regulars) to stay at home and fight the crisis.

What are the people in Davos talking about?

Think big: the global economy; wars; poverty; energy; banks; business.

Every year the annual meeting has a "big theme". This year it's Shaping the Post-Crisis World.

Yes, it sounds lofty, and don't believe that participants will come up with a solution to end all problems in the world.

There will be around 2,500 participants from over 90 countries.

For five days they will listen to new ideas, exchange views, strike valuable contacts - and just may come up with solutions for tricky problems.

True, some sessions are just platforms for powerful people to put forward their ideas, but 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.

Bill Gates at the WEF
Bill Gates is a Davos regular
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 co-founder Larry Page, the bosses of corporate giants like BP, Citi, Coca-Cola, Intel and Volkswagen will all join the crowd thronging the labyrinthine conference centre.

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.

Numerous heads of state or government are expected in the Swiss mountains - among them Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

As economic times have become harder, the number of celebrities has plummeted. A few years ago, showbiz stars such as Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Richard Gere and Michael Douglas stole the headlines.

These days the guest list is toned down, and only a few stars with serious humanitarian credentials - like rock stars Bono and Peter Gabriel - are welcome in Davos. For them, the event is a platform to push their good causes, although Bono is giving it a miss this year.

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. More recently he has pressed the need for business leaders to tackle climate change.

The biggest criticism, though, will be that many of the people who hope to solve the world's problems are also those who have caused them.

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