Published on Saturday, January 27, 2001 in the International Herald Tribune
'Anti-Davos' Forum Is Another Sign of a Sea Change
by William Pfaff
DAVOS, Switzerland -- The silliest bureaucratic contribution to the New Year was undoubtedly the U.S. State Department advisory just issued to American citizens, warning them not to come to Davos because the annual World Economic Forum, held here, might attract violence.
The State Department might just as sensibly advised Americans not to go to Washington the week of Jan 20. because the inauguration of George W. Bush promised violent protests.
If Americans don't come to Davos, what would be the point of the annual forum? The criticism always made of the forum has been that it idealized and promulgated U.S.-style capitalism and U.S.-sponsored globalization.
The criticism was justified in the beginning. That it is not justified today shows how far the debate on globalization has come since globalization's promotion became an objective of U.S. foreign and economic policy some eight years ago.
The success of the World Economic Forum, whose meetings began informally in 1982, attracted the criticism of those who objected to the economic and social values associated with Anglo-American-style capitalism. For the past two years, protests have been staged at Davos.
This year critics have established an "anti-Davos" to develop constructive alternatives to globalism. A "world social forum" is being held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, concurrent with the Davos meeting.
Porto Alegre is the capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. The city has been governed for 12 years by a left-wing coalition practicing an original form of decentralized city management that has attracted international attention. The people of the city's districts directly decide and control their budgets for transport, dispensaries and hospitals, social housing and education.
Despite federally imposed limits on the overall budget, and opposition from business and most of the city's media, the governing coalition was re-elected last year with more than 63 percent of the vote. The appeal of this social model for critics of globalism is obvious.
The initiative for the anti-Davos forum came from the dark heart of globalism itself, the United States. The Public Media Center, a liberal U.S. research organization, started the ball rolling, joined by the Institute for Policy Studies and by Ralph Nader's organization.
A second important initiative came from France, where an international group whose leaders include Susan George, an American expatriate motivated by Christian social doctrine, and Edward Goldsmith, a Franco-British ecologist, set out to rally representation from the developing nations.
In Brazil, there was even talk of a quota on Northern Hemisphere participation by nongovernmental organizations, since as one journalist said, "the 'Anglo-Saxons' imposed their model of globalism on the world; it's unacceptable that they now set the rules of anti-globalism."
Kofi Annan has sent a message of sympathy to the Porto Alegre meeting, while planning to be present in Davos. The French government, delighted with an anti-American initiative begun by Americans themselves, will have two government ministers in Porto Alegre and two others in Davos.
José Bové, the American press's favorite Frenchman and the nemesis of McDonald's, will be in Porto Alegre rather than on the barricades at Davos.
A scuffle at the barricades may nonetheless occur in Davos, even though the town's access is by a single road firmly controlled by Swiss police. Demonstrators plan a "shadow forum" near the congress center. Since the Seattle WTO conference was broken up violently in December 1999, establishment economic meetings have attracted a faction of demonstrators whose pleasure is smashing shop windows and policemen.
The Davos forum's leadership has gone to great lengths to demonstrate its desire for dialogue. Critical nongovernmental organizations have been invited to the forum, and more than 40 will participate. The meeting agenda emphasizes problems of development; the AIDS crisis in Africa, in particular; and widening the corporate social agenda.
In recent years, the Asian economic crisis, the halt in the U.S. boom and the crash of the dot-coms have contributed to tempering the enthusiasm of globalism's promoters. The world economy has shown resistance to the technocratic-utopian approach that seemed to promise to "Davos Man" mastery of the future economy.
The original meetings of the World Economic Forum tried to teach European businessmen the "new capitalism" of the United States and Thatcherite Britain. Now the forum is trying to persuade globalized businessmen of the merits of values associated with the old European social capitalism.
© 2001 the International Herald Tribune