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Commentary: At Davos the rich hear the poor

By JOHN C. K. DALY, International Correspondent

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- As the World Economic Forum in Davos rolled into its third day, a gabfest heard was heard Friday from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Polish President Alexander Kwasniewski and King Abdullah of Jordan, among others. Even Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, was scheduled to attend until he cancelled at the eleventh hour.

The 2,100 attendees represent the global political and cultural elite: 31 heads of state, 75 cabinet ministers and 48 ambassadors are exchanging ideas and business cards with almost 1,000 chief executive officers. Davos is the world's ultimate networking exercise. The forum has a long pedigree, having been established in 1971.

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The theme of this year's forum is "Partnering for Prosperity and Security." Delegates are attending current events presentations on such topics as "reconstruction in Iraq," "trans-Atlantic tensions," "corporate governance" and the ever-popular "global warming." But only a cynic would doubt that the world's political and economic glitterati can solve these conundrums at a stroke.

As a general rule this year, the more prosperous the nation, the more upbeat its representatives. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell set the tone when he declared, "What we can do as one nation is nothing compared to what we can do if we can all unite." Yet a positive outlook flounders as discussions approach issues that sank earlier international gatherings.

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Nothing illustrates the problem better than the attempts of Swiss President Joseph Deiss, who also serves as Switzerland's economics minister, to discuss the issues that led to the collapse of the World Trade Organization's ministerial meeting in Cancun, Mexico, in September with 25 other ministers. The spokesman for Deiss, Manuel Sager, noted, "The purpose of the meeting is to take stock of the process and to look for ways to move this process forward in 2004."

The WTO Cancun meeting primarily imploded because of the participants' differing positions on agriculture. The rancorous gathering saw the rise of an ad hoc group of developing countries determined to force big cuts to farm subsidies in affluent nations pressing them for increased market access.

Simply put, the poorer nations at Cancun and Davos see themselves as the ones making the sacrifices, opening their markets while wealthy nations subsidize their farming lobbies addicted to subsidies. Brazilian Trade Minister Luiz Fernando Furlan succinctly summed up the view of developing markets when he observed, "I live in a country that is becoming very, very competitive in agriculture, and the more we get improvements in competition the higher are the fences to access." There is so far little concrete evidence to suggest how delegates intend to resolve the disputes.

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Of course, there are certain problems shared by both rich and poor nations. Delegates have heard a number of speeches on the issues of graft and corruption, which cost the global economy more than $2 trillion annually. Again, there is more rhetoric than reform. In a refreshing change for the Third World delegates, U.S. representatives were hardly able to lecture their brethren of more modest means in light of the skein of Wall Street scandals.

But that is not to say that the meeting are pointless; far from it. All sides get a chance to air their positions before a global audience. The glare of the global media means that bombshells are occasionally dropped. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazzi said that his government planned to put 12 al-Qaida suspects being held in the country on trial.

Al-Qaida was also on the mind of Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf when he discussed the two assassination attempts he narrowly escaped last month, commenting, "We are reasonably sure that it is al-Qaida."

The last word for the day should belong to Annan. In attempting to find common ground on the stark issues of agricultural, a matter of economic life and death for many Third World countries, the quietly elegant secretary-general's remarks emphasized profit, compassion and responsibility, telling the delegates, "More than anything else, we need a poor-friendly deal on agriculture. No single issue more gravely imperils the multilateral trading system, from which you benefit so much."

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