NGOs in Davos: Substantive or Cosmetic?

01/25/2007 01:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The World Economic Forum prides itself as a "multi-stakeholder forum", the one place where government leaders, big business and civil society are supposed to rub shoulders. Its press release announcing the theme of this year's Annual Meeting even listed some of the NGO heads present (including myself).

As a veteran of six WEF Annual Meetings, I wonder if NGO presence this year is more cosmetic than substantive.

A senior WEF executive yesterday admitted openly that they had cut down on NGO participation, allegedly because the corporate members do not feel NGO participation and concerns are relevant!

This is borne out by the programme where NGOs are largely lunch or dinner speakers. Yet, key panels are being organized on human rights, humanitarian assistance and climate change - issues at the heart of NGO concerns - but the only way we can make raise our voice is from the floor (and that too, if we are lucky, as I was during a session on terrorism with high level politicians this morning).

When the voices of civil society organizations are shut out, some issues slip off the agenda - like gender (despite the World Economic Forum itself pioneering landmark initiatives like the Gender Gap Index).

By speaking truth to power - and usually without diplomatic finesse - we NGOs have probably made some business leaders uncomfortable, but if they think they can analyze and understand the world's most pressing problems without the presence of a key constituency, then they are headed for trouble.

The 2007 Edelman Trust Barometer yet again pointed to high levels of trust in NGOs: NGOs are either the most credible institution or tied for the most credible institution in 10 of the 18 countries surveyed.

By limiting dialogue between business and NGOs, is the World Economic Forum doing a disservice to its important corporate clients?

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