WEF summit still packs a punch

Klaus Schwab founded the World Economic Forum in 1971 Keystone

This month’s World Economic Forum (WEF) summit in Davos will be as relevant and provocative as ever, its founder told swissinfo.

This content was published on January 18, 2004

Klaus Schwab, the 65-year-old business professor who heads the WEF, also said Davos was less politically biased than the parallel World Social Forum in India.

“I’d say Davos is more diverse than Bombay,” Schwab said. “Because the Bombay [World Social Forum] represents one specific ideological direction.”

Schwab’s comments come as the Swiss mountain resort again braces to host the WEF, where more than 2,100 business, political and academic leaders gather for five days of debate about the world’s problems.

In recent years the summit has become a symbolic battleground between the supporters and opponents of globalisation.

However, the Swiss authorities expect this month’s summit to be quieter than in previous years, with fewer of the often-violent street protests that have marked past events.

High profile participants will include Paul Bremer, head of the US-led coalition interim authority in Iraq, the president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, and the US Attorney-General, John Ashcroft.

In an interview with swissinfo, Schwab said this year's Davos theme - "Partnering for Security and Prosperity" - would trigger fundamental debate among participants.

swissinfo: Critics describe Davos as a glorified cocktail party while its supporters see it as a venue for making world history. Why is the forum’s image so split?

Klaus Schwab: The real purpose of the WEF is to provide a platform that brings together global decision makers from politics, business, science, media and civil society, and whenever possible, to find solutions to challenges facing this world.

We have often succeeded in doing this, especially when I think of our role in South Africa and other conflicts.

Clearly, when 2,000 decision makers meet, there will be polarisation. But the summit’s goals are more important.

swissinfo: Protesters against the WEF are divided this year over the use of force. There may be fewer big demonstrations, and the alternative “Public Eye” forum in Davos has fewer big-name anti-globalisation figures. Is Davos now less relevant?

K.S.:I think the fact that you can’t find any empty beds in Davos is clear evidence to the contrary.

The quality of the participants also suggests the opposite. Namely, that we have a better platform for debate than we could have ever wished for.

None other than UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has suggested that the greatest problems of the world can’t be solved by governments alone.

And Davos is precisely the kind of platform that can bring together international organisations, business, unions and civil society.

swissinfo: You’re expecting 2,000 participants, but at the World Social Forum in India there’ll be more than 70,000.

K.S.: What’s important is that you have really controversial points of view. The numbers are not so important.

It’s essential that you discuss issues without one ideological point of view, and here I’d say Davos is more diverse than Bombay, because Bombay represents one specific ideological direction.

swissinfo: Why don’t you try to integrate the World Social Forum with Davos?

K.S.: We have made certain overtures in this direction. But as you know yourselves, [anti-WEF] groups such as Attac have openly declared that they will not engage in dialogue with us.

swissinfo: Previous WEF summits have often created global headlines. Do you expect that to happen again this year?

K.S: In the past, there was always a clear theme that dominated and absorbed the attention of participants.

Two years ago it was September 11, and last year it was the war in Iraq.

Today, in geopolitical and economic terms, we definitely have a better outlook than one year ago. And in that sense, this will be an ideal year for looking at problems in their entirety.

swissinfo: One year ago you said you’d never seen so many unhappy CEOs. Are they happier this year?

K.S.: You have positive signs on the geopolitical and economic front. On the other hand are a number of underlying problems remain unresolved.

There is too much poverty, and there is the whole issue of sustainability in terms of what we do in the environment and the health sector. And you have imbalances such as the big deficits in the United States.

So I would say we are positive and more optimistic, but we stand on very unsteady ground.

swissinfo: You’ve said that Switzerland needs politicians with business experience. The new cabinet now has two new businessmen. Are reforms likely to follow?

K.S.: I think Switzerland, like other European countries, faces big challenges, such as the ageing population and healthcare. We can’t spend 20 per cent of our Gross Domestic Product on healthcare.

We also face the reality that China is increasingly becoming the manufacturing plant for the entire world.

In this changing world, we need to redefine our role. And we need to recognise that the solutions we’ve used in the past won’t be enough.

I hope in Switzerland we have the political courage to recognise the problems, and to debate and accept the necessary solutions.

swissinfo: Do you believe Switzerland’s new ministers can achieve this?

K.S.: I think you have to give them a chance.

swissinfo: Davos generates income for hotels, restaurants and the economy. But there are also security costs that are increasingly carried by the public purse. Shouldn’t the companies participating in the WEF pay more?

K.S.: Whenever visitors come to Switzerland they measure their visit according to whether they were treated as a welcome guest or not.

As you are aware, there are alternatives available, but we’ve always supported Davos as the venue.

We could certainly make our lives simpler by saying we’ll move to Singapore.

swissinfo: You have many critics in Switzerland. Don’t you ever feel like a prophet who is valued more abroad than at home?

K.S.: Listen, I must be convinced that what I’m doing is right, and I am. I also don’t wander around the world and hope that everybody notices me.

I don’t go to cocktail parties and I don’t issue great lectures. I explain what we do, but I don’t seek any thanks from the public.

And incidentally, it's like with politicians - no good politician is uncontroversial.

swissinfo: You’ve said that a CEO is most effective for four years, and a politician for eight. You’ve now headed the WEF for 33 years and will celebrate your 66th birthday in March. When will you stop?

K.S.: I like what I’m doing, I have created an excellent team that supports me, we have institutionalised the forum and I feel well.

I have sometimes jokingly said that as long as I can run the Engadiner Ski Marathon I will stay in my office.

And if someone asks me to resign, I’ll invite them to do the marathon with me.

swissinfo, Jacob Greber and Andreas Keiser in Cologny, Geneva

Key facts

The World Economic Forum summit takes place between January 21 and 25 in Davos.
This year’s theme is “partnering for security and prosperity”.
More than 2,000 business and political leaders will take part, along with scientists and cultural figures.
Klaus Schwab founded the WEF in 1971. Born in Ravensburg, Germany, Schwab is also professor at the University of Geneva.
The WEF has been a foundation since 1987. Its members include 1,000 companies as well as 90 countries.

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