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World Economic Forum: the views from inside and outside

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Inside New York’s venerable Waldorf-Astoria last week King Abudullah II of Jordan called for the international community to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Outside, protesters called for Palestinian rights.

Inside the Waldorf Bono pleaded for countries and corporations to resolve the HIV/AIDS crisis consuming sub-Saharan Africa.

Out on the streets, demonstrators demanded affordable genetic drugs be made available to everyone with HIV and AIDS.

For the eclectic mish-mash of about 7,000 protesters that lined Park Avenue Saturday, the men and handful of women holed up in the midtown Manhattan hotel for the World Economic Forum symbolized all that is wrong with the world today.

The participants, nearly 3,000 corporate, political, academic and religious leaders, on the other hand believe they are working to make the world a better place.

The Swiss-based World Economic Forum, which until this year had always held its annual meetings in the Swiss resort of Davos, is considering holding the 2004 meeting in Whistler.

Comprised of 1,000 of the richest companies in the world the forum’s motto is "Committed to improving the state of the world."

But the World Economic Forum is much more complex than its simple motto.

It also looks different on the inside than it does on the outside.

For the record, I had a look from the inside. I was offered one of the four invitations extended to Whistler by the World Economic Forum, after Whistler-Blackcomb turned it down. The invitation included the coveted white accreditation badge, which allowed access to all seminars, presentations, lunches and dinners at the forum.

In short, I had the opportunity to sit in on sessions like the panel debate on global anger, which included the chairman and CEO of McDonald’s Corporation, the secretary general of the League of Arab States, the president of Poland, and the secretary general and CEO of the World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

The word used by many people on the inside to describe the forum seminars was "inspirational." Nobel laureates, the heads of NGOs, and corporate executives participated in intimate round-table discussions, while people such as Shimon Peres, Bill Gates, Desmond Tutu, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy and Bono participated in plenary sessions.

And they weren’t all about how to make more money. Many of the sessions did focus on economic and business trends, but social issues were a major and popular theme at this year’s forum. Even the secretary general of Amnesty International, Irene Khan, gave the forum high marks for broadening dialogue.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan summed up the theme that ran through the five days of this year’s World Economic Forum.

"The reality is that power and wealth in this world are very, very unequally shared, and that far too many people are condemned to lives of extreme poverty and degradation," he said.

"The perception, among many, is that this is the fault of globalization, and that globalization is driven by a global elite, composed of, or at least represented by, the people who attend this gathering."

Outside the Waldorf-Astoria, between 3,000 and 4,000 New York City police officers patrolled the streets to keep those who held that perception a safe distance away from the hotel. Every Starbucks, McDonald’s and GAP outlet in midtown Manhattan had one, and sometimes three or four, cops stationed outside. The streets around the Waldorf were blocked off with steel crowd-control fences while concrete barriers and large dump trucks loaded with sand formed a final barricade directly in front of the hotel.

A navy brig in Brooklyn was made available to hold large numbers of protesters should they be arrested. But over five days there were 201 arrests, most for minor offences. Damages were one broken window at an Upper East Side apartment. Pepper spray was used on one group of protesters police claimed were about to charge the hotel.

But for the most part the violent conflicts that have marred recent G8 and World Trade Organization meetings did not materialize. A massive police presence and a zero-tolerance policy were part of the reason. But police and city officials also worked with protest groups ahead of time, issuing permits for most protests and providing space for protesters to march to the Waldorf-Astoria and assemble within a block of the hotel.

As was stated many times in the New York media over the five days, people have a right to protest and the city has a long tradition of allowing peaceful protests.

Protests have been a part of the World Economic Forum for the past several years but New York found it was expensive to accommodate them. The figures for security measures in New York ranged between $6 million and $10 million. Security efforts included video cameras, monitoring anti-globalization Web sites, and likely, undercover police officers infiltrating protest groups.

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