Davos goes back to basics to stay ahead

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Like any other enterprise, the World Economic Forum, which holds its annual meeting in the Alpine resort of Davos this week, is facing some competition. And as enterprises do, it is striving to stay ahead of the field.

Apart from the now well-established World Social Forum, an annual gathering for globalisation sceptics, last year saw the inaugural meeting of Bill Clinton’s Global Initiative, a star-studded extravaganza of policymakers who met in New York City in September to help save the world.

While sharing Mr Clinton’s goal of making “the world a better place”, Klaus Schwab, founder and chairman of the WEF, is confident that the Davos event, first held in 1971, still has a unique appeal: the wide range of delegates and interests gathered in the intimate atmosphere of a small town in the Swiss Alps.

“Setting up alternative events and describing them as being anti- Davos or alternatives to Davos is what I would call ‘hijack marketing’ – deliberately differentiating yourself from a product that is already well-known,” he says, referring specifically to the World Social Forum. “But it only works for a while.”

Last year’s Davos forum had a heavy emphasis on development, symbolised by the actress Sharon Stone, who interrupted a session to raise pledges totalling a million dollars to help malaria-ridden Africans. That may have been enjoyable theatre, but there was some muttering from Davos regulars about self-publicising celebrities squeezing out hard-headed talk about business.

This year’s conference, though with a somewhat fanciful title – “The Creative Imperative” – has a distinct feeling of getting back to basics. Most of the 2,340 delegates are from business, and the rise of India and China as global economic powers has forced itself to the top of the agenda.

Jim O’Neill, global chief economist for Goldman Sachs, is chairing a discussion on the “BRIC” countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China), which have generated more than a quarter of overall global economic growth in the past five years.

Indian and Chinese representatives have often played a rather quiet role at Davos but this year Indian business and government have turned their PR machines up to full speed. India’s self-styled “Dream Team” delegation includes a clutch of CEOs as well as its finance and trade ministers.

The other themes of the conference include some hardy perennials.

One is the world economy, where current account imbalances grow larger every year but, in spite dire warnings from some Davos delegates, have yet to implode in crisis.

Another familiar subject is the future of Europe, given new resonance by the travails of the European constitution. Angela Merkel, Germany’s new chancellor, will deliver the conference’s opening speech.

But the timing of current events will also inevitably force themselves into the discussions. The foreign policy conversations, already given prominence by an address by Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, will be dominated by the Middle East. Palestinian elections are being held on Wednesday, the first full day of the meetings.

A large Iraqi delegation, including the prime minister, is attending, and Mohammed ElBaradei, director general of the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, who last week turned down the EU’s request for a rapid condemnation of Iran’s nuclear programme, will also be present.

Oil executives including Jeroen van der Veer, chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, and ministers from several Opec countries, will make up what rather resembles an energy mini-summit, while avian flu will ensure that public health remains an issue for businesses as well as doctors.

A gaggle of trade ministers will gather for the first time since the Doha round of trade talks that barely inched forward at the Hong Kong meeting last month. Rejecting accusations that the European Union is to blame for the stalemate, Peter Mandelson, EU trade commissioner, will today urge the ministers to keep pushing for new cuts in trade protection.

Many delegates may be too involved in these tense discussions to be inspired by the Creative Imperative, or even to discover what it means. But the importance of their conversations is beyond doubt.

In the end, like many successful businesses, the strength of Davos may lie not just in what it carefully plans but also in what it allows to happen.

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