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Sun Sets on a Changing Forum

The World Economic Forum ended with an appeal for overcoming global poverty through just globalization. Top executives shared the stage with speakers ranging from UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to U2 singer Bono.

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The sun shined, and calm returned, to New York City

This year's World Economic Forum met for the first time in New York instead of its Swiss resort home of Davos as a gesture of solidarity after the September 11th attacks. And the events since that day also dominated the discussions in the exclusive Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Delegates faced new issues this year, ranging from bio-terrorism and interfaith dialog to understanding the anti-globalization movement. It was a far cry from the more exclusive, less socially-conscious Davos of the recent past, where the dominant topics were deregulation and shareholder power.

"Aura of Social Change cloaks Economic Forum," read a headline in the editorially conservative Wall Street Journal during this year's event. "You wouldn't have seen headlines like that five years ago," said forum spokesman Charles MacLean.

The benefits of globalization

Many participants raised concerns that globalization had failed to benefit the under-privileged. However, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said it has been misunderstood.

"I believe that perception is wrong - and that globalization, so far from being the cause of poverty and other social ills, offers the best hope of overcoming them," he said in the forum's closing speech on Monday. "But it is up to you to prove it wrong, with actions that translate into concrete results for the downtrodden, exploited and excluded."

He warned that the September 11th attacks exposed the wide gap between the rich and the poor nations. The business community and governments ought to give hope to those struggling for survival in developing countries. Otherwise, the world might embrace anarchy and conflict, Annan added.

One-time opponents now on the guest list

An unusual development at this year's forum was the inclusion of more critical non-government organizations and other globalization opponents. Some activists for human rights, development and global justice who once protested outside the Forum's gates were this year sought-after panelists, invited to brief the captains of industry on their social responsibilities.

"Everyone understands that as a matter of simple self-interest if they want to preserve the good name of their corporation, to preserve their brand image they need to avoid complicity in human rights abuse," said Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. "They need to be doing something and be seen doing something about addressing matters of social justice."

bono cui?

Rock star Bono of U2 (photo), who actively campaigns for debt relief, stole the show in the art deco ballrooms of the Waldorf-Astoria. He shared a platform with Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates to launch a global public health initiative.

"We need a discussion about whether the rich world is giving back what it should in the developing world," said Gates. "I think there is a legitimate question whether we are."

Although critical opinions may not be accepted by the world's economic leaders, at least they have been heard in a public forum.

But some participants were skeptical whether their presence made any impact on the 2,700 participants, whose companies paid more than $20,000 a head for the privilege of being there. Others criticized that the dimensions of the meeting led to a lack of depth and focus.

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