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Great and good to gather at Davos to tackle new reality

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
  • Theme for 2011 World Economic Forum (WEF) -- Shared Norms for the New Reality
  • WEF had been dominated by prospect of recession after global economic crisis
  • Organizers say new reality of global recovery is that it must result in more inclusive growth
  • Delegates at annual WEF meeting use event to highlight issues of interest to everyone

(CNN) -- For the last couple of years shell-shocked leaders from the world of business and politics have gathered in the picture-perfect ski resort of Davos in Switzerland to count the cost of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The normally glitzy alpine town has had a noticeably austere, dressed-down feel, with fewer parties and more conservative business suits in evidence, as grim-faced delegates appeared to resign themselves to the prospect of a long recession.

But with most countries emerging slowly from the gloom, the theme at this year's annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) -- Shared Norms for the New Reality -- is intended to move the agenda away from collective navel-gazing, towards a post-crisis mindset based on pragmatic realism.

According to the organizers, the new reality of the global recovery is that it must result in more inclusive growth as a means of restoring public faith in its leadership. To achieve this, governments and corporations must live by a system of shared norms.

Last year, WEF founder Klaus Schwab commented that the present system "fails to meet its obligations to as many as three billion people in the world. Our civic, business and political cultures must be transformed if we are to close this gap."

Watch Schwab's interview from last year

Global challenges in 2011
Obama, Sarkozy talk global economy

So for five days, heads of government, business tycoons and billionaire philanthropists, will again gather in the resort's fortified congress center at the foot of the imposing Schwarzhorn to come up with strategies to achieve this worthy goal.

One interesting change this year is the WEF's mandate that one-in-five delegates should be female, as it seeks to redress the balance when it comes to the number of women at the highest levels of business. Saadia Zahidi, director of the WEF's women leaders and gender parity programme, was quoted by Britain's Guardian newspaper as saying: "The World Economic Forum annual meeting engages the highest levels of leadership from a variety of sectors and participation figures are a reflection of the scarcity of women in this external pool."

When the action finally does start, much of the real business is actually done behind the scenes where lucrative deals are brokered, and new contacts are made at the various cocktail parties and black-tie events that take place in expensive hotels around the town.

Why should ordinary people care?

In the past, critics have suggested the Davos "talking shop" is little more than schmoozing among the political and business elite in a luxurious environment. But there's no denying that this high-profile event gives oxygen to some vital issues of interest to everyone.

Last year, French President Nicolas Sarkozy used his keynotes address to call for an overhaul of the capitalist system. One of his main targets was the excessive bonuses paid to bankers -- an explosive issue for many people -- as he urged the imposition of a reform plan to limit the size of banks, curb rewards and impose restrictions on riskier trading.

I see the Davos meeting as a 21st Century Agora for government and business leaders - a place where they can discuss business face to face and get an honest read of the agenda for the year ahead.
--CNN's John Defterios

The 40th annual meeting of the World Economic Forum was also overshadowed by the devastating earthquake in Haiti which left more than 200,000 dead and many more homeless. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- a U.N. special envoy to Haiti -- used a special session at the WEF to highlight the problems faced by the impoverished Caribbean island.

Read more about Clinton's speech

"If there's anybody who knows where I can get pick-up trucks or something slightly bigger, I need 100 yesterday. They do," he asked a packed audience. He wasn't joking. He clearly recognized the platform for an effective appeal that Davos offered.

Meanwhile, other high-profile delegates arrived in the Swiss resort to promote more philanthropic endeavors. Alongside his wife Melinda, Microsoft founder Bill Gates revealed that their Gates Foundation would be investing $10 billion in vaccines to fight a number of illnesses including AIDS and said the record donation could save nearly nine million lives. But in an interview with CNN, Bill Gates warned the foundation could not achieve its goals alone. "We're spending lots of money on vaccines but this won't cover everything. We need governments around to come on board."

Read more about the Gates Foundation

Who's at Davos this year?

Noted public figures are likely to include U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, Jean-Claude Trichet, Chairman of the European Central Bank, and South Africa's president, Jacob Zuma. Britain's Prince Andrew will represent British trade interests, while Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, and Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud from Saudi Arabia will bring a royal touch to Davos.

Top business leaders will include billionaire investor and philanthropist George Soros, Yorihiko Kojima, chairman of Japanese corporate giant Mitsubishi, and leading U.S. bankers, Citi chief Vikram Pandit, and Brian T. Moynihan, CEO and President of Bank of America.

In recognition of the increasingly pivotal role of the millennial generation, the great and good from the world of social media will also gather to discuss their contribution to this post-recession climate. Key figures will include Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, and entrepreneur Sean Parker, who co-founded music-sharing website, Napster.

Does Davos make a difference?

Last year, Klaus Schwab was asked if he felt some bankers would use Davos only as a lobbying tool against the kind of banking regulation favored by President Sarkozy. Schwab remained positive. "I think Davos is built on dialogue," he said.

Of course everybody will try to push his own interests," he added. "But at the end you become aware that it's not only your interests that count, but there are other groups who have different interests. And if you can find and adapt, in the process of interaction in Davos, your own point of view, then I think then we have managed a great achievement."

John Defterios, who will front CNN's coverage alongside Richard Quest, was equally effusive about the event. He said: "I see the Davos meeting as a 21st Century Agora for government and business leaders - a place where they can discuss business face to face and get an honest read of the agenda for the year ahead."