Plight of poor sets tone at forum for rich

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 February, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 February, 2002, 12:00am

The tone of this year's World Economic Forum annual meeting has been set not by the usual politicians and business leaders but by an eclectic collection of figures calling for a better deal for the world's poor.

Rock star Bono, an ardent campaigner for Third World debt reduction, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines, the foreign minister of the new Afghan Government and the Queen of Jordan are not the kind of figures who normally set the agenda for a meeting traditionally occupied with the business of making money.

But in a break from the past that reflects the vulnerability that businesses and governments feel post-September 11, it was they who were invited to put their ideas of a more caring capitalism before an audience of several thousand business and political leaders from all over the world. Outside the conference venue at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, groups of anti-globalisation activists have been demonstrating for a fairer global order.

Unlike on previous occasions, the protesters have been peaceful and restrained, and have clearly not wanted to provoke trouble in a city that is still tense and raw from the September 11 attacks. The 4,000 policemen drafted in to maintain law and order outnumber the protesters.

Though the anti-globalisation protests have been muted so far, they have clearly influenced the agenda of the world's largest gathering of businessmen.

The founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), Klaus Schwab, outlined six themes for the conference that reflect the general air of unease in the business and political community, ranging from advancing security and reducing vulnerability to redefining business challenges in the current climate. But they also include issues such as reducing poverty and improving equity, in recognition of the influence that the anti-globalisation protesters have had over the past few years.

Bono, who leads the Irish rock group U2, confessed he was a 'spoiled rotten rock star' and told the meeting the anti-globalisation protesters had a valid point and that their concerns needed to be taken into account. 'Why don't we open up our markets to coffee beans and the other things that the poor countries produce?' he asked.

President Arroyo repeated her calls for the global coalition against terrorism to be followed up by a global coalition against poverty, while Archbishop Tutu impressed on his audience the need to believe in the ultimate victory of good over evil.

Not every one has been impressed by this new touchy-feely capitalism that the forum has embraced. Noam Chomsky, the left-wing academic who is addressing an alternative to the WEF in Brazil, delivered a scathing attack on the forum, describing it as an attempt by the business elite to find ways to maintain their traditional dominance.

For the second year running, the WEF conference has inspired a parallel conference in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre which has attracted intellectuals and activists. Despite the increasing movement of the WEF agenda to take into account critiques of globalisation, the two sets of gatherings are still poles apart. 'The actual system of global capitalism has lost legitimacy,' said one participant at the meeting in Brazil.

For all their doubts and vulnerabilities, no one at the New York conference has any doubts about the future of capitalism, or its beneficial effects. The move to New York from its traditional home in the Swiss mountain village of Davos for the first time in its 31-year history, as a gesture of solidarity and support to New York, has been warmly welcomed by this city's leaders.

Former mayor Rudy Giuliani, thanked Mr Schwab for bringing the meeting to New York and declared: 'You have already helped us demonstrate to the world that New York is not only alive and well but that its spirit is even stronger than it was.'

New York has, however, showed up an area of weakness in the forum's otherwise admirable discipline. Unlike in Davos, where there are few other distractions, the attractions of New York appear to be proving too strong for several participants, who have wandered off into town rather than attending some of the sessions.