Celebrities are drawn to forum

Economic summit attracts the famous to lobby for their social agendas

January 30, 2005|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

DAVOS, Switzerland - Captains of industry, heads of state, central bankers and economists gather every year in this swank ski resort to contemplate the Phillips curve, exchange rates and business cycles. The discussion is frequently as dry as the alpine powder or an exquisite 2000 Bordeaux.

This year, however, Davos was agog over different curves, and glitter met gold. When a herd of cameramen approached, no one asked which world leader or CEO was arriving, but which movie star had appeared and what cause he or she was promoting.

Actress Sharon Stone pleaded for funds to combat malaria. Angelina Jolie sought corporate help for United Nations programs that feed and clothe people displaced by conflicts. Richard Gere pitched the need to help India fight AIDS. Rock star Bono appealed for immediate aid to Africa, warning that sinking states could produce tyrants who would harbor militants.

Not to be outdone, politicians also came to Davos with social agendas this year. British Prime Minister Tony Blair promised to lead the charge against global warming and climate change, a stance that could put him at odds with the Bush administration. The presidents of France and Brazil pitched global taxes on arms sales, financial transactions and even airline tickets to raise money for a global war on poverty in Africa and elsewhere.

"Africa is just not a selling point to my readers," grumbled a Danish business writer after yet another event left him with no financial news to write about.

He'd better get used to it. Issues such as poverty, development and climate change now dominate the global agenda and present challenges to governments and business alike, said Richard Samans, the managing director of the World Economic Forum's Global Institute for Partnership and Governance.

"The forum is a platform to bring leaders together from all different segments of the international system. We work with them to shape our agenda," he said. "So it is only natural that some of the poverty- and development-related issues, ethical issues, have begun to take a larger amount of the space in our program discussions."

Although the Geneva-based World Economic Forum is best known for its annual ranking of economic openness and global competitiveness, it increasingly supports projects as diverse as AIDS treatment and measuring greenhouse gas emissions.

"The forum in the last few years has moved beyond being a platform for dialogue ... to being more a platform for collective action on specific global and regional problems," said Samans.

A good heart aside, Davos remains a playground for the rich, the richer and the richest. Days of debating how to alleviate poverty were followed by wining, dining and partying until the wee hours in the ballrooms of chic hotels. Expensive Cuban cigars and barrel-aged Scotch were consumed like Beer Nuts at a sports bar.

Jolie said she came away from her first World Economic Forum confident that celebrities and big business can combine forces to work for common good.

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