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Kai Ryssdal: The weather forecast for Davos, Switzerland, this week is a chance of snow and no small amount of hot air. The World Economic Forum will be taking over the tiny Alpine ski town starting tomorrow. More than 2,500 people, top politicians and corporate executives alike, are going to be there discussing how to fix the global economy. Our European bureau chief Stephen Beard is in Davos this week as well. And we asked him to find out what attendees and observers might expect.
STEPHEN BEARD: As presidents, prime ministers and billionaires arrive in Davos, a pair of locals are laying on a traditional, Swiss welcome.
Dirk Schneider and Andy Rechts are limbering up on a couple of 20-foot alpine horns. Cattle herders once used this instrument to call in their cows from the mountainside. Now musicians like Andy and Dirk use them to entertain the tourists.
Dirk Schneider and Andy Rechts: You don’t hear it everywhere and that makes it so special, so individual. You need to have plenty of wind to play this instrument. Yes, you do, definitely. You need a lot of wind, yes.
Cynics might say the same about the summit held every year in Davos. It is a huge talking-shop. A massive gabfest for the rich and powerful.
TONY BLAIR: This is a new world, but actually we’ve been taught a very old lesson, which is that values matter.
That’s former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair at Davos last year. Every January, the small Alpine retreat is heaving with Russian oil tycoons, Chinese billionaires, head honchos from the U.S. and Europe. Just being here is a heady experience, says Lord Digby Jones a former British Trade Minister.
DIGBY JONES: You can be in a reception, and Bill Gates is on other side of the room. And Warren Buffet’s over there, and it’s a great ego massager. You feel that you’re important.
All the leaders of the group of 20 nations are invited, though not all attend. Media chiefs and certain academics are invited too. And there’s a sprinkling of movie stars.
Yes, a bit of a celebrity fest, but says Oxford University Professor Tim Garton-Ash, worthwhile, all the same.
TIM GARTON-ASH: The conference center for four days is a hive of networking. Quite a good thing, I think. Better that the leaders of the world should get to know each other than that they don’t.
Davos enthusiasts claim these annual gatherings helped the former communist countries eastern Europe move to capitalism and helped ease China’s emergence as a major economy.
Martin Wolf of the Financial Times says contacts forged at Davos may well have helped us weather the current economic crisis.
MARTIN WOLF: I think one of the reasons our world hasn’t collapsed quite in the way that it did in the first half of the 20th century is that people just keep talking. I happen to believe that talking is quite a good thing to do.
The theme of this year’s seminars and discussions is: Rethink, Redesign, and Rebuild. It will tackle issues like: how do we avoid the next crisis, how do we reform global institutions like the International Monetary Fund, how do we deal with China, how do we improve the state of the world? But these issues may not be uppermost in the minds of some of the summiteers.
EVAN NEWMARK: I did go there with the intent of helping the world, yeah. But my first priority was kind of to help myself.
Evan Newmark, now a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, has been to Davos as a businessman. Business pays for the forum. While politicians, media chiefs and academics attend for free, business delegates pay around $60,000 each. Worth every cent, says Evan.
NEWMARK: It was just a great place to meet and greet clients or potential clients. It was a place to do business. If you ask me how much did I contribute to improving the state of the world, I’m afraid my scorecard may be pretty empty.
Critics of Davos say the summit has self interest at its core. This year the summiteers are under pressure as never before to prove the critics wrong and to answer the question: How do we really improve the state of the world?
In Davos, this is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.