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Corporate Europe Observer

Davos 2000: 'New Beginnings' for Global Capitalism?

he air was full of 'Seattle' when some 2,000 industrialists, politicians and other self-proclaimed 'global leaders' met for the 30th World Economic Forum (WEF), in the Swiss ski resort, Davos, in January. The international media eagerly speculated whether the anti-WEF demonstration organised by Swiss anti-WTO activists would turn into a 'second Seattle'. The perceived backlash against globalisation and how to respond to it was one of the main themes of this years' forum, along with the internet 'e-conomy'.

As neoliberal economist and WEF veteran, Paul Krugman, recently put it, the 'Davos Man' has "an image problem. One that threatens the process of the globalisation for which they stand." [1] Conveniently, the WEF is all about promoting new common discourses for the global elite, including joint responses to whatever challenges they might face. Not only to give the assembled politicians and corporate elite a pleasant feeling of common direction, [2] but also to get the message distributed around the world through the international mega-media which was well represented in Davos. The discourse emanating from the carefully orchestrated debates and workshops of this year's WEF is that globalisation is the only viable strategy, but needs a 'human face'. Markets should be liberalised and globalised, but this should be combined with self-regulation and philanthropy by business and a more consensus-seeking model of 'global governance', including developing country governments and 'constructive' NGOs. This, in short, is the WEF's post-Seattle recipe to make neoliberal globalisation a more palatable development model. [3]

The WEF organisers, lead by Klaus Schwab, showed how experienced they are in selling new images to the world. In the days before the start of the Davos events, articles by Schwab and WEF Director Schmadja appeared in international newspapers and magazines warning against the backlash caused by "globalization running amok." [4] After the internal disputes between North and South at the WTO Ministerial in Seattle, Schwab and Smadja called for a more inclusive approach and for "new multilateral structures for global governance" with enough credibility and legitimacy." [5] Schwab proposed "close cooperation between government, business and civil society" and for "flexible networks, where you put together governments, international organizations and business to look at the new issues on the global agenda." [6] Smadja in another article argued that in order to prevent the backlash, "social, psychological and ethical dimensions must be integrated into the globalization process." [7] After last year's slogan, 'Responsible Globality', the organisers must have really stretched their minds to come up with the even more feel-good title "New Beginnings: Making a Difference" -- quite a jump from the undiluted neoliberal slogans of earlier years, like the 1996 slogan -- "Strengthening Globalisation."

'Davos Men' About 'Seattle People'

Political leaders like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in their WEF speeches, paid lip-service to what they generously described as legitimate concerns of the Seattle demonstrators, but continued to defend the launch of a new WTO round to achieve further trade liberalisation. [8] Clinton stated that "trade can no longer be the private province of politicians, CEOs and trade experts," an ironic message in light of the elitist audience he was addressing. 1,200 business leaders were present there, all from companies with a minimum turnover of US$1 billion and each having paid a personal entry fee of typically US$20,000. Clinton asked the business leaders to "develop a joint vision for the next 10-20 years," but not to "leave the little people out." [9] Mexican president Zedillo launched a fierce attack on the WTO-critics, who he accused of suffering from "globaphobia" and only wanting to prevent economic development in the South. [10]

Among the speakers from business, some played 'good cop', others 'bad cop'. Louis Schweitzer of Renault warned that " a purely free-market economy is like allowing a fox free into the henhouse." [11] Lewis B. Campbell, CEO of Textron, called "supporters of free trade" to build an international coalition sufficient to push the cause of globalisation," in order not to loose "the propaganda war... The international business community must take the lead,", said Campbell, who referred to NAFTA, which happened because business mobilised for it. [12]

Also a part of the post-Seattle image-building was the handful of workshops on corporate social and environmental accountability that took place during the WEF. Time Magazine and Newsweek (with strong financial links to the WEF) in their previews on Davos focused on how corporations respond to consumer pressure and want to be seen as 'good global citizens'. [13] Time Magazine printed a full-page appeal by ABB's CEO Goran Lindahl, prominent WEF participant but himself responsible for serious corporate abuses, for TNCs to "make protecting human rights a priority." [14]

Journalist Will Hutton of the London Observer who attended the WEF was not impressed, noting that the workshops on business ethics tended to be poorly attended. "The 'hard' conversations are about how to maximise shareholder value and how to be a winner in the new economy," he concluded. [15] Despite the many gestures to signal change (like planting trees to compensate for the CO2 emissions involved in flying the 'Davos Men' in) Hutton saw little real change. "The balloon of complacency and belief that the Davos consensus is almost unimprovable is so huge that it would take an intellectual atom bomb along with gigantic riots to effect any change." [16]

The messages from the WEF were transmitted to the outside world through the 650 journalists that were allowed to cover the event. WEF media participants are not only meticulously selected (alternative media is not welcome and journalists who have criticised the WEF are rarely invited again), most of them only have restricted access and base their reports on "reams of handouts, session summaries and the snatches of the proceedings they watched on live, closed-circuit TV," in the words of Danny Schlechter of the media-critical Media Channel. [17] Luxurious dinners paid for by Coca-Cola were to keep these media workers happy. [18]

A Seat at the Table in Davos?

Another move to improve the image of the 'Davos Man' was to invite NGO representatives, some of which are known as 'Seattle people'. While Schwab has already for some years handpicked a handful of leaders of mainstream global NGOs such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International, the presence of Martin Khor and Vandana Shiva of Third World Network was the result of demands by the NGO initiative 'Public Eye on Davos'. This project to "monitor the World Economic Forum" was setup by the Swiss Berne Declaration and supported by over 150 NGOs who signed a joint statement. [19] 'Public Eye on Davos' demanded the WEF to "radically change its perspectives, rules and proceedings," improve transparency and increase NGO participation. [20] WEF boss Klaus Schwab responded by inviting six NGO people from a list of 20 candidates and accepting an invitation for a public debate. [21]

In the debate, Schwab was full of praise for the NGOs, stating that "dialogue is what Davos is all about." [22] The WEF, Schwab claimed, is "the only platform in the world that can look at all challenges and ensure an integrated view." Not everybody is welcome, however. When asked about the demands made by 'Public Eye on Davos' and whether he would double the number of NGO participants next year, Schwab replied that only "people who can make a conceptual presentation" and have "capacity for dialogue" would be invited. [23] These are the kinds of people which Schwab sees playing a role in the "global policy networks" between governments, business and NGOs he envisages can deliver legitimacy and consensus for 'responsible globalisation' and 'global governance'. Inside the WEF, there were several workshops looking at the role of NGOs and how business should respond to the increased scrutiny from campaign groups. [24]

Several journalists at the press conference of the 'Public Eye on Davos' asked critical questions about the 'Public Eye on Davos' strategy of reforming and democratising the WEF. Is a democratic WEF imaginable? Were the NGOs taking part in the WEF not being co-opted and did their participation not dilute the critical message? Walden Bello, one of the NGO representatives who experienced the WEF from the inside, afterwards concluded, "we should not try to reform Davos, but we should expose and ridicule and challenge the dangerous and undemocratic self-importance of Davos and the people who go there." [25] This mirrors the opinion of the estimated 2,000 demonstrators, mainly from Switzerland, France and Italy, who managed to take over the central streets of Davos for most of an afternoon despite a massive police and military presence. [26] Their protest was not for increased NGO participation but against global elites meeting to chart out the future for the rest of the world -- regardless of how "committed to improving the state of the world" these 'global leaders' claim to be. [27]


1. 'Davos Man' Needs to Resolve an Image Problem", International Herald Tribune, January 24th, 2000. Krugman's 'Davos Man' image captures very well the extreme gender bias of the event: this year more than 90% of the participants were men. The Swiss Wochenzeitung noted that also the group of six NGO participants at the WEF selected by 'Public Eye on Davos' was male dominated, with five men and one woman. "Wirtschaftsforum: Es geht nicht nur um Oekonomie", Wochenzeitung 3 February 2000. | Back to Text |

2. For many participants, an important part of going to Davos is the informal talks and the deal-making which takes place elsewhere in the conference centre and in hotel lobbies. A Swiss CEO claimed to have planned more than twenty smaller meetings in the three days he was in Davos. Being able to meet so many corporate and political leaders in such a short time saves weeks of travel time. One of the reasons for corporations to pay the additional US$200,000 and become "WEF Partners" is to be the first to receive the full final list of WEF participants: crucial privilege for the intense race of making the most worthwhile appointments for the 5-day event. "Scharf Beobachtete Begegnungen", Wochenzeitung, 30 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

3. The five days of World Economic Forum featured some 350 workshops, including titles such as: - "Is Globalisation for Everybody?", - "Strategies to Fight the Globalisation Trap", - "It's Not the Economy, It's the Society", - "Global governance in the 21st Century".  | Back to Text |

4. "We Need Structures to Help Steer Globalization", Klaus Schwab and Claude Smadja, International Herald Tribune, 24 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

5. Ibid.  | Back to Text |

6. "The world is so complex that we cannot create some kind of all-encompassing business-government organization. It would lack democratic legitimacy." Source: WEF website.  | Back to Text |

7. Tony Blair stressed the need to win over "the sincere and well-motivated opponents of the WTO agenda." Source: "That's snowbizz", Financial Times, 29 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

8. As the last speaker in a plenary debate about international trade, Zedillo was given three times as long to speak as the other speakers and his speech was distributed in printed format by WEF hostesses. Die Weltwoche, 3 Feb 2000. | Back to Text |

9. WEF press release 29 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

10. Clinton responded to Schwab's question on what he most wanted to ask the 1,000 most powerful CEOs who were in the room. Clinton also told the business leaders that "when good people have a shared vision, all works well. Collectively, you can change the world."  | Back to Text |

11. Ibid.  | Back to Text |

12. "It's the Society, Stupid," Time Magazine, 31 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

13. "Ubiquity and its Burdens," Newsweek, 31 January 2000.  | Back to Text |

14. "A New Role for Global Businesses," Time Magazine, 31 January 2000. ABB specialises in building and running nuclear, fossil fuel and hydroelectric power plants around the world. Particularly controversial is ABB's involvement in the planned Three Gorges Project in China and the Bakun Dam in Malaysia (now postponed), both of which would result in massive forced resettlement of local people. | Back to Text |

15. According to Hutton, "the voices arguing that corporations need to behave ethically, and socially responsible and with an eye on environmental sustainability are the weakest in the weakest in the 11 years I have been coming here." Source: "Greed is Good, Too Good to be True", Will Hutton, The Observer, 30 January 2000. | Back to Text |

16. Ibid.  | Back to Text |

17. The WEF has a strict hierarchy of badges and only few correspondents with a name get the 'all access' white badges and are full participants of the Forum. A category higher is the group of editors and columnists with the label "media leaders" who take part in panel debates. Finally, a whole different clan are Rupert Murdoch, Michael Bloomberg and other CEOs of media corporations who were in Davos to promote their business. "At the Top Of the World: Covering the World Economic Forum -- How the Goliaths of Globalization Groom the Media", Danny Schechter, 3 February 2000, Mediachannel website .  | Back to Text |

18. Ibid. There was also a special media dinner with US trade negotiator Charlene Barshefsky and US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers. | Back to Text |

19. See website of the 'Public Eye on Davos' . | Back to Text |

20. The 'Public Eye on Davos' NGO Statement.  | Back to Text |

21. The other four were Walden Bello, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Brent Blackwelder and Manuel Chiriboga. Other NGO representatives at this year's WEF included David Bryer of Oxfam, Ed Mayo of the New Economics Foundation, Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and Pierre Sane of Amnesty International. Trade unions were represented by John J. Sweeney (AFL-CIO), Bill Jordan (ICFTU), John Monks (TUC), Emilio Gabaglio (ETUC) and others.  | Back to Text |

22. Public debate organised by 'Public Eye on Davos', 29 January 2000. | Back to Text |

23. Ibid. Some of the NGOs invited for the WEF seem to have strong confidence in Schwab's capacity to select. Greenpeace CEO Thilo Bode, who spoke at four WEF panels, even distanced himself from the Public Eye initiative. "People who have something to say will also be invited," Bode told a Swiss newspaper. "Draussen, drinnen, auf der Strasse," Die Weltwoche, 3 February 2000.  | Back to Text |

24. Including workshops titled: - "In Search of Robin Hood", - "NGO: Foes or Partners in the Global Agenda?", - "A New Big Brother is Watching You: What the Grassroots NGO is Thinking".  | Back to Text |

25. Focus on Trade, Number 45, February 2000.  | Back to Text |

26. The regional authorities had banned the demonstration and only few had expected that the police would let people move away from the station square. After walking a kilometre or so down the main street the police blocked the street with their vans and fences. On the way, a McDonalds branch had its windows smashed and a huge McDonalds banner was taken down from a wall and burned. It had an image of a hamburger and the provoking slogan: "Think Globally, Eat Locally".  | Back to Text |

27. "The World Economic Forum is an independent organization committed to improving the state of the world." Source: WEF website. | Back to Text |

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