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Davos Succumbs to Star Power

Movers and shakers from business and politics at this year's World Economic Forum in Switzerland were pushed to one side, as international celebrities added combating poverty and AIDS to the agenda.

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Angelina Jolie was a top attraction at the WEF in Davos, Switzerland

Hollywood film stars Angelina Jolie, Sharon Stone and Richard Gere, as well as singers Bono and Lionel Ritchie, vied for attention with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany at Davos. Normally at the center of attention at the annual event, the world's business elite were left to play supporting roles on the sidelines this time around.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder successively pledged to find ways of spending billions of dollars in aid, trade or debt relief into poor countries this year.

But Stone, an anti-poverty activist like other celebrities invited to the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos, stole the limelight by making "an ass of myself" and extracting one million dollars from the largely corporate audience within minutes. She stood up during a debate on poverty involving Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, pledging $10,000 (€7,660) for anti-mosquito bed nets to help prevent malaria in Tanzania and challenged her fellow onlookers to follow suit.

"A lot of them, let's face it, are pretty square," she later said of the business leaders at the debate. But thirty of them responded to her challenge to stump up cash for her cause.

The Bono factor

Bono, who also heads a pressure group campaigning for Africa, cajoled and hounded the Davos heavyweights, appearing alongside Blair and finance minister Gordon Brown to warn that a whole generation in western countries wanted "to be remembered for something other than the war against terror."

Bono und Gerhard Schröder auf dem Weltwirtschaftsgipfel in Davos

Bono and his new buddy Gerd.

"We want to perhaps be the generation that's remembered for ending extreme poverty," said the lead singer of Irish rock ground U2, demanding action this year. Having taken former US treasury secretary Paul O'Neill to Africa, he vowed to lavish similar attention on Germany's Schröder.

If Schröder joined with Blair and Chirac, who called here for an international tax to fund the fight against AIDS, "they can change the world," Bono said.

The star names here said celebrity status could move mountains quicker than being a national leader hidebound by politics.

"I can move quickly. If you're in politics you can't move quickly," agreed Gere, one of the busiest high-profile activists for human rights and AIDS awareness, notably in India. "What I'm most effective at is connecting dots that have not been connected before. I can put people together who are doing extraordinary things."

Britain's Brown admitted that the Group of Eight industrialized countries was feeling the pressure after a coalition of groups at the alternative World Social Forum (WSF) in Brazilian city of Porto Alegre called for a global mobilization against poverty.

"I now sense in 2005 that hundreds, then thousands, then millions in every continent are coming together with such a set of insistent demands, that no government, no politician, no world leader can afford to ignore them," Brown said.

Traditional topics sidelined

The elite business, political, academic and civil society participants invited to the five day meeting appeared to have sensed the mood of the moment. Asked by the forum organizers to choose six issues that urgently needed to be tackled in the world -- and by the forum over the next year -- 64 percent of them placed poverty at the top, followed by "equitable globalization" and climate change.

Traditional Davos favorites, the global economy and trade, were almost left out altogether, depriving about 100 anti-globalization protestors of their key themes as they trudged peacefully through the resort's icy streets on Saturday.

Bill Gates auf dem Weltwirtschaftsforum 2005 in Davos

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates

Microsoft founder Bill Gates tried to grab the spotlight briefly when he heaped praise on communist China for creating "a brand-new form of capitalism". But the drawing power of the geeky computer pioneer paled in comparison to Angelina Jolie, recently voted the sexiest woman alive by Esquire magazine.

Jolie, who has carried out field trips to 20 countries, including Cambodia, Ivory Coast, Sri Lanka and Sudan, said keeping near the spotlight was crucial to publicizing humanitarian needs. She said her ambassadorial role with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees was "more fulfilling and more interesting to me" than films. "And I know it's more important."

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