Economic forum: from humble beginnings to global event

Klaus Schwab transformed a small gathering of European executives into the world's top business event Keystone Archive

From its small beginnings 30 years ago, the World Economic Forum has become the world's foremost global business summit.

This content was published on February 2, 2002 - 15:22

The man behind the forum is Professor of Business Administration at Geneva University, Klaus Schwab. It was Schwab who took the initiative in 1970 to invite Europe's top business leaders to discussions in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

The success of that first meeting led to the establishment in 1971 of the European Management Forum. In 1987, the name was changed to the World Economic Forum to reflect the organisation's global ambitions.

In the early years, the gathering dealt primarily with management issues but it has grown to encompass political, social and, increasingly, environmental questions, too.

Ready for dialogue

The Forum has more than 2,000 participants from more than 50 countries and, as well as top business leaders, the summit now attracts political and media leaders and academic experts in every field.

Guest speakers have included the former United States president, Bill Clinton, and the British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Organisers say the aim of the Forum is to create an atmosphere for discussion where the world's top decision-makers can identify problems, discuss solutions and make new contacts.

Critics, however, say it is secretive, elitist and an obstacle to social progress.

Greenpeace has turned down an invitation to this year's event in New York after complaining that WEF failed to follow up an initiative on climate change agreed at last year's summit. The environmental organisation will instead attend the parallel World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Competitiveness report

Since the end of the 1970s the Forum has become an important vehicle for economic research. In 1979 it began publishing its first annual World Competitiveness Report.

And it has also provided an arena for discussions to ease international tensions.

In 1987, the then German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, gave a famous speech urging the West to give the then Russian president, Mikhail Gorbachev, a chance. Some historians see this as the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

The following year, Greece and Turkey pulled back from the brink of war with the signing of the Davos Declaration.

But anti-globalisation protesters criticise the World Economic Forum for being a rich men's club that is secretive, elitist and an obstacle to social progress. They say the WEF helps big corporations and richer countries exclude the world's poor from economic decision-making.

The critics

The WEF has tried to answer its critics in recent years by including environmental, social and cultural questions in its programme. It insists that it wants the benefits of economic growth and globalisation to spread to the developing world.

But this will not satisfy hard-core opponents who say the Forum should be shut down to allow more transparent decision-making.

And it's true that many of the meetings of top policy-makers will be held behind closed doors. But this, say the organisers, is a crucial part of the so-called "Esprit de Davos" which fosters open discussion.

Recent years have seen the WEF, like other high-profile political and economic summits, attract protests that have often turned violent. Last year, demonstrations were banned in Davos for the duration of the event but riots broke out in Zurich when protesters were prevented from travelling to the resort.

New York police will mount a huge security operation to try to prevent similar events there, but the Forum is bound to remain a focus of dissent for those who feel the global economic order is responsible for the grinding poverty that exists across much of the planet.

by Michael Hollingdale

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In compliance with the JTI standards

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