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Clinton seeks to compete with Davos

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-08-04

The Swiss are coming to America to set up shop, and Bill Clinton may soon face stiff competition in the do-good business from his good friends who've enjoyed an earlier start in the corporate fundraising game than the former American president.

His friends are the folks who organize the prestigious Davos summit in Switzerland each January. Under the rubric of the World Economic Forum, they will open operations in Boston and New York in what's apparently a move toward tapping the good will and resources of the American corporate community.

That very community is also being tapped by Mr. Clinton, a prodigious fundraiser who will launch his own annual summit in New York next month featuring world leaders. He will ask these political, business and nongovernmental figures to make specific pledges to alleviate poverty, tackle AIDS, and deal with issues such as environmental security, conflict negotiation, and good governance.

These issues are also the bailiwick of the Geneva-based forum. But its week-long session in the ski resort that made a memorable appearance in Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain," doesn't require the high-level participants to make commitments for social or economic action, although everybody traditionally pays lip service to the public good at Davos, where its organizers say that the global agenda is set for the public and private sectors.

The forum's founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, told The New York Sun yesterday that one of his organization's directors, Kevin Steinberg, is being relocated to Boston. Mr. Steinberg handles financial services.

Mr. Schwab, a Swiss-German professor of management who started the forum 34 years ago, has also roped in a major figure in the American business community to assist him. He is Rajat Gupta, senior director at McKinsey & Company, and formerly global head of that renowned consulting firm.

"We are looking into the possibility to open later, possibly next spring, an office in New York. For this purpose, we have established a small informal advisory committee, overseen by one of our Foundation Board members, Rajat Gupta," Mr. Schwab said, cautioning against "premature announcement" of the forum's office in New York. The forum's core membership consists of the world's 1,000 biggest corporations.

Mr. Gupta's nomination was applauded by Robert Hormats, vice chairman of Gold Sachs International, who has attended Davos for many years. But, echoing a concern of several American business leaders, Mr. Hormats said there now appeared to be a "risk of forum proliferation." He pointed out that in addition to the Davos and Clinton summits, there are the high-quality meetings of the Fortune Forum, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Aspen Institute's Ideas Festival, and others that attempt to draw decision-makers.

"A lot of these forums are very useful in the marketplace of ideas," he said. "But it's like having a large number of TV channels. You wind up being selective. Business leaders need to budget their time, and focus only on those events where they can make the greatest impact and derive the greatest benefit. They will vote with their feet about where they want to commit their time and money."

"We should welcome the World Economic Forum to America, of course," Mr. Hormats said. "But they are going to face a lot of competition from the Clinton summit and established gatherings. Most of all, they will be in a competition for business executives' time."

The involvement of his friend, Mr. Gupta, in Mr. Schwab's initiative is intriguing because he's already associated with Mr. Clinton in another venture, the America Indian Foundation. Mr. Clinton is the honorary chairman of the foundation, and Mr. Gupta is co-chairman, along with a former top executive of Citigroup, Victor Menezes, also Indian-born like Mr. Gupta.

Indeed, Mr. Clinton has helped raise funds in America for the foundation and also visited India to study its development and humanitarian projects.

And both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gupta are habitues of Davos, along with some 2,000 world leaders in politics, business, finance, media, education and technology, among other fields; the American contingent is usually one of the largest at the week-long summit.

Mr. Clinton has also publicly proclaimed his admiration for Mr. Schwab's entrepreneurial and organizational skills. When he was in the White House, he became the first American president to participate in the Davos summit.

At recent annual talkfests, Mr. Clinton has increasingly emphasized his engagement with global issues such as AIDS, poverty alleviation, and social development - the very issues that the forum is also increasingly emphasizing. These issues are also espoused by the America Indian Foundation which, until a few weeks ago, was lodged in McKinsey's Park Avenue headquarters. McKinsey provided a spacious suite free of charge. (The foundation recently moved to Third Avenue to quarters supplied by The Conference Board for nominal rent.)

Mr. Clinton's vehicle for fundraising and action on social issues is the New York-based Clinton Foundation, whereas the forum, also a nonprofit, primarily works out its sprawling Geneva headquarters on the shores of Lac Leman.

Notwithstanding his public praise for Mr. Schwab - a Swiss-German professor of management - and his energetic participation in the Davos summit, Mr. Clinton has told friends that Davos is little more than a glittering talkfest. Other participants see it mainly as an opportunity to network at the highest levels of world politics and business.

So Mr. Clinton is organizing his own annual "Davos on the Hudson." Called the Clinton Global Initiative, it will be inaugurated Sept. 15. Sessions will run through Sept. 17 at the Sheraton New York, and participants will include boldface names such as French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, California Governor Arnold Schwarznegger, and Sonia Gandhi, the de facto ruler of India.

The sessions will be concurrent with the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly, which this year is scheduled to attract more than 170 heads of state and governments, the biggest such assembly in history.

Also attending Mr. Clinton's summit will be business tycoons such as Rupert Murdoch, and nongovernmental leaders such as Countess Albina du Boisrouvray, president of Association Francois-Xavier Bagnoud, a Swiss foundation that helps AIDS orphans and other vulnerable children. (Disclosure: this reporter has assisted in developing the foundation's Web site and also produced a conference paper at Davos.)

Virtually everybody attending Mr. Clinton's summit also participates in Davos, including Jordan's Queen Rania, who is a member of the board of the World Economic Forum. Her husband, King Abdullah II, hosts an annual "Davos on the Dead Sea" summit for Middle East leaders.

And what will Mr. Clinton do that's different from Davos? And is he concerned that the planting of the forum's flag on American soil might create competition for funds and participants?

Through a spokesman, Jay Carson, Mr. Clinton told the Sun yesterday that he "welcomed the World Economic Forum to America," and that he "designed the CGI to complement Davos," and to "persuade business and other leaders to make substantive commitments" to his agenda.

In what seemed to be a not-so-subtle dig at Davos's time-specific frame, literature sent to the Sun by Mr. Clinton's office said that the "Clinton Global Initiative does not end on September 17." It added that the CGI "will coordinate participants' efforts throughout the coming year." Mr. Carson added that the 2006 summit would review the participants' action on their commitment.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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