3 - 9 February 2000
Issue No. 467
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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'Talk social, act brutal'
Wrapping up their first summit of the new millennium, the World Economic Forum (WEF) closed shop in Davos on 1 February after six-days of marathon sessions. Over 3,000 leading representatives from the world's political, business, academic and scientific communities grappled with key issues affecting the global economy in what was dubbed "the summit of summits". Participants included US President Bill Clinton, British Premier Tony Blair, King Abdullah of Jordan, South African President Thabo Mbeki, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa.
The gathering's theme was optimistic -- New Beginnings: Making a Difference. It was an optimism not necessarily shared by many outside the conference centre. In a replay of last December's militant anti-WTO demonstrations, which contributed to closing down the Ministerial Meeting in Seattle, the WEF meeting became the focus of a new round of anti-globalisation protests.
While the founder of the forum -- German-born management professor Klaus Schwab -- proclaims that the organisation aims to become the "social conscience of the global economy", critics denounce the WEF as an elite, white rich men's club, which the world's corporate bosses and politicians use to negotiate highly secretive closed-doors deals.
In an attempt to finesse his way through a potential new political minefield, Clinton adapted and fine-tuned his speech at the forum to avert further global criticism of American trade policies, which are widely perceived -- by the South in particular -- as self-serving and expansionist.
As Clinton addressed the assembly of powerful CEOs and politicians, and urged the world's elites to better explain the much-maligned globalisation process to their constituencies, an estimated 2,000 protesters defied sub-zero temperatures and heavy security to express their rage at US trade policies.
Attempting to assuage critics, the US president professed both empathy and compassion with the protestors who, he said, should be included in the democratic debate and persuaded of the alleged benefits of liberalising global trade.
"The protesters in the streets of Seattle had conflicting interests, but the thing they had in common was that they felt they had no voice," said Clinton. However, he insisted that globalisation was here to stay. "Those who wish to roll back the forces of globalisation... I believe are plain wrong," said Clinton.
The telecommunications revolution was the focus of this year's WEF gathering. Participants representing poor countries expressed their concern that the new communications technologies will accentuate the gap between rich and poor nations.
IN DEFIANCE of a court order prohibiting the staging of street protests in Davos, on 30 January demonstrators, braving arctic conditions, stormed through the plush Alpine resort, pelted chic store fronts and sports cars, and eventually vented their rage at McDonalds, the symbol par excellence of American globalisation.
As in Seattle, the Swiss police used pepper gas and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, who nevertheless managed to sound their anti-globalisation message loud and clear. "The WTO is anti-democratic, nobody elects them. Nobody controls them, but they control us, the way we live," one Swiss demonstrator argued on the icy streets of the elite resort.
Representatives of rich and powerful nations, top business executives and information industry gurus concurred. "There are many countries where the kind of discussions we're having are not relevant, because they have much more basic needs," said Steve Case, chief executive of America Online, whose company has recently merged with Time Warner. The blockbuster merger is widely seen as setting a trend in the information industry and can only propel the pace of globalisation and the monopolisation of knowledge, wealth and power.
The Internet, revolutionising social and economic relations, has emerged as central to the process of globalisation, which has in turn become the dominant feature of the knowledge-based economy. Not surprisingly the Internet, and its role in developing the global economy, topped the agenda at the WEF.
Case spoke on a panel that included Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft and the world's wealthiest man. But even the powerful and rich saw the dangers of what Gates dubbed the "digital divide" between rich and poor nations. It was partly because of concern for the growing gap between rich and poor that Gates saw in Davos a golden opportunity to launch "The Children's Challenge" in conjunction with UN agencies, philanthropic foundations and miscellaneous multinational corporations. They are donating large sums to prop up a campaign that will save the lives of an estimated three million children who die of vaccine-preventable diseases. "Extending the right to protection against preventable disease to all children, rich and poor, is not only a fundamental human right, it also makes good business sense," explained World Bank President James Wolfensohn.
Other participants were not impressed. "Too often we see corporate bosses talking social but acting brutal," explained Philip Jennings of the Swiss-based Union Network International labour federation.
Gamil Ibrahim in Davos;
Faiza Rady and
Gamal Nkrumah in Cairo