Davos 2011: adjusting to the world's new power balance

Davos aerial view
Image caption Davos: a small town in the Swiss mountains

The worst of the global economic crisis may be over, but it's a weary world converging on Davos, the sleepy town in the Swiss mountains hosting the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

It's a world suffering from "global burnout syndrome", too weak to tackle another global shock, says Professor Klaus Schwab, the man who invented the annual meeting of the world's top business leaders and politicians 41 years ago.

The crisis has also shaped new realities. For years, the forum provided a perfect snapshot of the rebalancing of the global power balance, from West to East and (to a lesser extent) from North to South.

This year's agenda confirms the new superpowers: first and foremost China; then India, still emerging; and runners-up like Brazil and other commodity-rich countries.

"Insights on China", "The future of Chinese enterprise", "China's impact on global trade and growth" - just a few of the sessions on offer for the 2,500 people attending the annual jamboree of the rich and powerful.

One of the sessions, "New realities of modern China", has received interest from double the number of participants that can actually fit into the room.

Pointedly, the session on "reshaping the US economy" is being led by a senior fellow of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Little surprise, then, that China is sending its largest delegation yet to Davos - although politically at least it is not as high-powered as in previous years.

Global risks

Image caption The Davos Congress Centre has been extensively rebuilt for the event

Every year in the run-up to the meeting, the WEF produces a "Global Risks" report, and this year's made particularly gloomy reading, listing dozens of interconnected and complex risks that could overwhelm governments weakened by the financial crisis.

"We have to be careful that this crisis does not become a social crisis, which it has in some countries," Professor Schwab tells the global elite coming to the Swiss mountains.

Davos (motto: committed to improving the state of the world) will not solve these problems. That's not what it's been designed for. The event is a talking shop, a networking event - but one that can set the agenda, generate new ideas, build bridges.

The forum's organisers hope that the discussions can prod global leaders into action. It's not an unreasonable assumption, as 19 governments of the G20 group of leading nations will have top ministers, or leaders of state or government, in Davos.

The WEF is also going to launch a "global risk response network", an attempt to join up the expertise of corporate risk officers with that of government officials.

Europe's revival?

China may be dominating the agenda, but Europe's leaders are the ones trying to make their mark.

Most of the forum's keynote speeches will be made by Europe's top politicians: UK Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev (although Monday's bomb attack in Moscow has thrown his attendance into doubt).

They will try to counter the pessimism of the WEF's agenda in sessions like "Europe: back to the drawing board" and "the eurozone: shifting from survival to revival", while the Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is set to go on a charm offensive, making his case in public, and with bankers and journalists in private.

Terrorism and other security issues are also high on the agenda, with the attacks in Russia probably shifting the focus away from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

And a recently added session will look at "Tunisia - tipping point or Tsunami".

High-powered, and mainly male

Crisis or no crisis, the forum is still drawing the world's top politicians. The United States government, mostly absent in recent years, is sending Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; 35 countries are sending heads of state or government.

Image caption The forum is a bonanza for catering companies

Badly under-represented, however, will be women. Coming to the mountains is Davos man. The WEF felt compelled to tell its 100 "strategic partners" - from Goldman Sachs to Deutsche Bank - that at least a fifth of each company's delegates should be women.

Still, there is diversity. Developing and newly industrialised countries are strongly represented, and the bosses of the world's top companies will mingle in the corridors with "technology pioneers", social entrepreneurs, church leaders, campaigners from organisations like Greenpeace and Oxfam, and cultural leaders like Robert de Niro and Bono.

After all, its this eclectic mix of participants that makes Davos special, regardless of the heavy-duty agenda.

Party time

Because Davos is not just about pinpointing problems and generating ideas, it's about discovery, networking, schmoozing... and socialising with your peers.

Every night, the hotels of Davos will be hosting dozens of parties and receptions, and cater for exclusive and very private dinners.

Stressed executives, meanwhile, can broaden their minds in sessions like "Shakespearian leadership", "Music for social change" and "Powerful portraits: what's in a face" ... or find out whether the "burnout" triggered by hard work is for real or just a fashion.

The forum continues to be unique. Where else can one find so many powerful, rich, clever or interesting people in one place?

During five days they will make connections, strike deals - and at least ponder how to improve the world.

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