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World Economic Forum: Takin' It To The Suites

February 01, 2002 [ Printer-friendly version ]

NEW YORK -- "Rich and Powerful Gathering at Elite Forum on Economy," trumpeted the headline of a front-page New York Times story on the World Economic Forum. So how come I keep running into activists, academics, social entrepreneurs, consumer advocates and fellow journalists rather than the corporate elite?

Another news story on the five-day conference, which, after three decades in Davos, Switzerland, was moved to New York City, ominously predicted that "phalanxes of demonstrators are expected to shadow (the participants) at every turn." So far, I have been going in and out of the Waldorf, where the forum is being held, unshadowed by a single demonstrator (it's too bad, because I'm kind of interested in talking to one) but stopped by dozens of policemen, despite my WEF badge.

Harping on the "exclusivity" of the event, reporters have delighted in mentioning that the forum's 3,000 participants "are paying $25,000 a head for the privilege of hobnobbing with each other." In fact, while there certainly are corporations here laying out that kind of money, most of the folks I've talked to are doing their hobnobbing for free.

So the media have been peddling a caricature and the demonstrators gathered outside have been attacking it. As someone who shares the protesters' commitment to shaking up the status quo, I cringe when they dilute their power by railing against an ill-defined bogeyman. They are proving that if you protest everything, you end up changing nothing.

Sure there are plenty of rich and powerful people at the gathering -- from Bill Gates and the chancellor of Germany to Hillary Clinton and the president of the Philippines. But the place is also brimming with the kind of people the forum's founder, Klaus Schwab, calls "idealists."

"The forum is making a real effort to bring inside people who are on the outside," Rick Aubrey told me. Aubrey, who runs Rubicon, a California-based nonprofit which provides services to the homeless and disabled, has been named by the Schwab Foundation as an "Outstanding Social Entrepreneur."

As Jed Emerson, a Stanford economist who has been toiling at the intersection of business and social activism for years, puts it: "The people on the other side of the fence would be very surprised at the amount of discussion here directly addressing the very issues of poverty and inequality they're raising outside the forum."

Indeed, the biggest applause at the plenary panel that included Eli Wiesel, Archbishop Tutu and the Queen of Jordan was reserved for that notorious elitist U2's Bono, who challenged the forum's participants to "live out the idea of equality by refusing to turn a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic in Africa as if the people suffering from it were not our equal."

"This is a defining moment not only in history but for the World Economic Forum," said Bono. "You are the people, the minds that can turn things around. And if we do, we won't just save lives, we'll save our own souls."

Yes, as at all conferences, there is plenty of networking going on. Lawrence Bender, who produced "Pulp Fiction," was chatting up Shekhar Kapur, the director of "Elizabeth," about doing a movie together. Coca-Cola CEO Douglas Daft threw a lavish party at the Four Seasons. An intimate group of senators and sheiks dined together at Le Cirque. And five members of Congress were available for what was billed in the program as a "Congressional nightcap" at the Waldorf's Starlight Roof Center.

On the other hand, forum organizers disinvited Ken Lay. And they invited community activist Van Jones, who was tear-gassed in Seattle protesting the WTO and hit by a police car in Washington protesting the IMF. Indeed, they honored him as a "Global Leader for Tomorrow."

"The people I've met here," Jones told me, "are much more thoughtful, complex and concerned about social issues than either the Left or the media portray them to be."

One of the forum panels I participated in was called "The Media Made Me Do It." And the media coverage of the event certainly seemed to be itching for a camera-ready confrontation. Maybe reporters were afraid that if they paid more attention to the rabble-rousers inside the Waldorf's suites than those on the streets, their stories wouldn't have that essential eyeball-grabbing element: conflict. It's too bad, because they missed a bigger -- and much more significant -- story.

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