Merkel to headline the World Economic Forum

GENEVA — German Chancellor Angela Merkel will headline the annual elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland this month, underscoring the world’s focus on the European debt crisis that for over two years has wreaked havoc on financial markets.

GENEVA — German Chancellor Angela Merkel will headline the annual elite gathering in Davos, Switzerland this month, underscoring the world’s focus on the European debt crisis that for over two years has wreaked havoc on financial markets.

Organizers of the World Economic Forum said Wednesday that close to 40 heads of state and 18 of the world’s central bankers will be among the expected 2,600 participants from nearly 100 countries, making it the biggest such gathering in four decades at the Swiss Alpine resort.

The exclusive, invitation-only meeting of government and business leaders and VIPs from all walks of life is held to foster debate on the world’s most pressing problems. Participants’ expertise ranges from technology to arts and sciences, from NGOs to media organizations.

“We are looking desperately around the world for people who can offer solutions,” said the forum’s founder Klaus Schwab.

Other public figures expected at the Swiss Alpine resort include British Prime Minister David Cameron, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, International Monetary Fund managing director Christine Lagarde, U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby.

Kevin Steinberg, who heads the forum’s U.S. operation, said this year’s forum will see the strongest showing ever from the business community who see a greater need than ever before to engage with other sectors of society on global issues. “It’s a combination of uncertainty and all of these challenges, and the fact that business and other constituents don’t feel they can address or solve any of these issues alone,” he told a news conference in New York.

Most of the more than 260 sessions are off-the-record discussions. But this year the forum is introducing a series of 29 on-the-record interviews with well-known figures such as Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who pioneered microcredit as a tool for development, and actress Michelle Yeoh.

Schwab said capitalism in its traditional form is no longer really working. The world’s major economies are burdened by debt and have “failed to learn the lessons” from the 2008-2009 financial crisis, he said.

“We are in danger of completely losing the confidence of future generations,” he said. “The question is what can we do, and what should we do, without looking for scapegoats and easy answers.”

Merkel will kick off the annual meeting and South African Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu will speak at one of the first sessions “to add a values-based and moral-based” focus to the meeting, Steinberg said.

The five-day annual meeting will likely be dominated also by discussion of the wave of Arab Spring protests and comes just months ahead of Russian and French elections. Last year’s forum was held just as Tunisia and Egypt were roiled by protests fueled by a lack of jobs and political inclusion.

Merkel’s role as leader of Europe’s largest economy will be much on display at the forum.

Germany has been paying the lion’s share of the bailouts in Europe’s debt crisis. But there are signs that even its economy, which has so far grown strongly throughout two years of financial turmoil, is slowing down. Some fear that could further temper the country’s willingness to rescue fellow euro countries.

The German government cut the country’s 2012 growth forecast to 0.7 per cent from 1 per cent on Wednesday. It predicts the country will avoid sinking back into recession, although the fourth quarter is expected to show economic contraction of up to 0.3 per cent.

The Davos forum, which has been criticized for being a gathering of rich and powerful people disconnected from the world, will again see some protests.

Activists inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement have set up an igloo camp outside the meeting buildings. None of the protesters have been invited to the panels, but the Geneva-based forum’s organizers say activists can join the public at certain parallel events being held.

Last week, the World Economic Forum said the financial crisis of the past few years is fueling resentment that could spark protectionism, nationalism and social unrest.

In a warning to government leaders, the Geneva-based international organization said leaders risk ushering in a “dystopian future” because of the impact of young people with few prospects, retirees dependent on debt-saddled states and an expanding gap between the rich and poor.

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Associated Press Writer Edith M. Lederer contributed to this report from New York

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