CAIRO: Committed to improving the state of the world, goes the motto of the World Economic Forum. As with most slogans, it s catchy yet vague and difficult to contend with. Nevertheless, this annual gathering of the world s most influential people in Davos, followed by a number of regional meetings, is not without its detractors.
Founded in 1971 by the German professor and businessman Klaus Schwab as an independent non-profit organization under the supervision of the Swiss government, the forum has long been viewed by critics as a secretive meeting of businesses and policymakers to push forward a global corporate agenda.
In 2001, the anti-globalization protests that had plagued the meetings of the World Trade Organization reached Davos. The protestors believed the forum was complicit, alongside multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO, in a conspiracy of capitalists to uproot popular interests for the benefit of the few. The protestors were, in their own view, the champions of social justice.
Sherif El Diwany, Middle East director of the forum, makes no excuses for the fact that his organization is not a grassroots initiative. We cannot do everything, says El Diwany in an exclusive interview with The Daily Star Egypt. Instead, he explains that the forum has chosen to engage leaders of different segments of the public that in turn affect the rest of society.
El Diwany describes the forum s strategy as a multi-stakeholder approach which is comprised of representatives from business and government as well as civil society. Of the 1,500 individuals invited to next month s meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, some 10 percent are members of civil societies with various interests including women, youth and human rights.
El Diwany adds that members are bound by a common understanding that, in today s world, no single member of the global community can make decisions on their own. In response to allegations of collusion with the WTO and other governmental multilateral bodies, El Diwany emphasizes the voluntary nature of the forum as a means for dialogue with no power over its participants to commit to any agreement.
Youth, women, democracy and the rule of law are the key issues that will be discussed in next month s meeting. El Diwany believes that the subject of young people is the highest item on the agenda, in light of the concentration of youth in the region s population and their high level of unemployment. The changing nature of regional economies, accompanied with the influence of global trade on culture, also raises questions of identity and empowerment among the younger generations.
Labor migration is the most important issue for participants from North Africa. Europe has long been a haven for employment of growing young populations on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, but neighboring countries to the north can no longer accommodate them due to economic constraints and cultural resistance. El Diwany hopes to bring together representatives of European and North African countries during the meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh to exchange views on this challenge.
With respect to the status of women, El Diwany says that encouraging legislative and social changes have occurred in the region, but more needs to be done. He therefore anticipates that, in addition to youth, issues pertaining to women will be featured especially at the meeting.
The region s political regimes have been in the global spotlight since Sept. 11, 2001. The United States in particular has played an active role in redefining the region s political and economic landscape, shifting its foreign policy from an emphasis on security and stability to what observers have termed controlled instability.
Through its Middle East Policy Initiative, the U.S. has engaged civil societies in the region and sought to encourage commerce through free trade agreements with several countries, with notable exceptions being Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Yet despite the progress on legislative and structural changes relating to commerce, opposition groups assert that economic reform has outpaced political reform. El Diwany says that the forum is a perfect opportunity to debate matters such as prudence in political and social change, and the role of foreign powers in the region s reform process.
A number of other items are likely to be included on the agenda, including privatization, the increased liquidity in the region driven by high oil prices and the accession of Saudi Arabia and other countries to the WTO. El Diwany adds that the recent Israeli elections demonstrated the increasing importance of the economic agenda to the Israeli public; previous elections focused more on security.
El Diwany also hopes that representatives from Iraq will be present at the meeting. Iraqi businesses participated in January s meeting in Davos, where they discussed the future of investment in their country. We have a keen interest in assisting Iraq, says El Diwany.
The World Economic Forum on the Middle East will take place in Sharm El-Sheikh on May 20 to May 22. The regional forum comes to Egypt after several years in its birthplace along the Dead Sea in Jordan. Future regional meetings will alternate every other year between Jordan and another country with the aim of providing delegates with exposure to different areas in the region. El Diwany expects next year s meeting to take place in Doha, returning to the Dead Sea in 2008 and proceeding to North Africa in 2009.