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World Economic “Forum” Is High-Dollar, U.S.-Europe-Japan Corporate Trade Association, Not a “Dialogue”

WEF Excludes Developing World Attendees and Critics; WEF Founder’s Own Foundation Has Ties to Companies That Have WEF Contacts and Contracts, Public Citizen Report Reveals

Jan. 31, 2002

NEW YORK – Contrary to the image it touts as a being venue for dialogue on the vital issues of the day, the World Economic Forum (WEF) is a high-dollar corporate trade association composed of top brass from mega-corporations who are WEF’s members and funders. WEF mainly provides private access for corporate titans to political leaders and shuts out voices of those who question its corporate globalization agenda, according to a Public Citizen analysis in a report released today.

Further, the Public Citizen analysis found that a foundation established by the WEF’s founder has holdings in companies whose businesses benefit from WEF contracts and contacts with key WEF members.

The WEF is meeting this week in New York, ostensibly to “engage top leaders from different segments of global society” on global issues, according to its Web site. But the meetings will go forward without representatives from key non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in both developing and developed countries. (They will be holding a counter-meeting at the World Social Forum, in Porto Alegre, Brazil, to strategize on alternatives that can provide more equitable and democratic outcomes. Click here for more information.)

Nor does the WEF represent the world. Despite the organization’s claims, the analysis of WEF’s board members and attendees shows that they come primarily from Europe, the United States and Japan. Members on both its guiding boards – the Forum Board of Directors and the sister Council Board of Directors – are overwhelmingly white European and American men, the analysis shows.

“The World Economic Forum is not what it purports to be,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “These corporate elites are hardly the people we want steering the global trade agenda. The WEF lacks the diversity of opinion necessary for an open and honest debate. It appears designed to reinforce preconceived notions and reach a predetermined conclusion — that is, to further the interests of corporations in trade while shutting out the concerns of environmentalists, health advocates and public interest groups.”

Founded in 1971 by Klaus M. Schwab, the organization limits its membership to just 1,000 of the world’s top corporations. Member companies must have annual revenues of more than $1 billion.

The WEF’s annual meetings provide intimate venues for corporate executives to hobnob with politicians, including presidents, prime ministers and members of royalty. Executives who attend the invitation-only meetings network can arrange face-to-face meetings in quick succession that otherwise would take months to arrange. A series of regionally focused meetings that occur between annual summits are designed to provide a more intimate opportunity for business leaders to meet local government leaders and regulators and challenge local laws and regulatory oversight. Credentialed members of the media seeking to cover the WEF are kept out of many events.

Yet what goes on behind those closed doors can have a profound effect on policy. For instance, the WEF takes credit for launching the Uruguay Round of negotiations of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and helping create the World Trade Organization (WTO). This year it will feature discussions about the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) agreement.

This year, summit participants are disproportionately from Europe, the United States and the Middle East. Most delegations from Africa are small, and just four Central American delegations are coming, even though the FTAA NAFTA expansion is prominent on the agenda.

Further, many NGOs are noticeably absent. NGO representatives who participated in the 2000 meeting and were critical of the WEF weren’t invited back in 2001. And many 2001 NGO participants — key civil society leaders such as Martin Khor of the Third World Network in Malaysia, Vandana Shiva of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology in India and Jeremy Rifkin of the Foundation on Economic Trends — weren’t invited this year. (Public Citizen, which attended in 2001, was not invited.)

Others, such as Greenpeace, rejected WEF invitations in protest. The Public Citizen report exposes an exchange initiated by Amnesty International’s then-Executive Director Pierre Sane and the WEF’s Schwab protesting the WEF’s treatment of NGOs and peaceful protesters at its last meeting.

“People who question the WEF’s agenda and demanded civil liberties and basic democratic rights clearly are unwelcome,” Wallach said.

Finally, the study shows how the holdings of the WEF president’s own family foundation have benefitted from the cozy business contacts with WEF members, partners and the WEF itself. For example, WEF President Schwab sits on the board of Swiss bank holding company Vontobel, which underwrote the initial public offering of Swiss software company Think Tools, where Schwab also was on the board of directors. Virtually all of Think Tools clients were WEF members in 2000. Think Tools provided Internet banking software for Vontobel, whose contract was terminated for substantial losses in 2001.

Click here to view a copy of Public Citizen’s report.