Delegates to the World Economic Forum discuss the emergence of India and China, human enhancement and oil.

A coterie of international power brokers gathered this Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland, for the start of the 2006 World Economic Forum. The event brings together heads of state, business leaders, scientists and academics from around the world for a five-day meeting on the future of the global economy.

An over-arching theme of the conference has been the relationship between wealthy and developing nations, particularly the challenge for rapidly-changing nations like China and India of balancing the rapid economic development with protection of human rights and the environment.

“What is happening in India and China,” Harvard President Lawrence Summers said in a speech Wednesday, “the integration of the four-fifths of the world where people are poor with the one fifth of the world where people are rich has the potential to be one of the three most important economic events in the last millennium, alongside the Renaissance and the industrial revolution.”

The summit provoked discussions of how sustainable development can be achieved in Asia and elsewhere. A panel on China’s environment examined the ways in which the world’s largest nation is protecting its environment. One panelist Elizabeth C. Economy, C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director, Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations, USA, identified “a sea change in the central government’s commitment” to environmental protection.

China’s stance towards the environment has consequences for the world as a result of the nation’s size and economic importance.

“From an environmental point of view, as goes China, so goes the world,” said Moderator Daniel Esty, Director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy.

The world economic forum has also provided an arena for finding ways to help the world’s poorest countries. Microsoft Co-Founder and Chairman Bill Gates and British Finance Minister Gordon Brown called for a global fundraising effort to fight tuberculosis. Tuberculosis kills 2 million people a year mostly in developing nations. Africa is hit particularly hard by the disease because co-infection with TB and HIV/AIDS is often deadly.

“We need 56 billion dollars in ten years to eradicate tuberculosis in Africa and save 14 million people who could die,” said Gates.

In Davos, discussions also arose regarding ethical questions that we face as a consequence of new technologies. Scientists attending the meeting called attention to the future of human enhancement, and its potential to increase the already-sizeable disparity between industrialized nations and the developing world. With rapid advances underway in medicine, they said, the world will very soon be forced to confront the ethical implications of mapping the genome.

“One of the big worries is over genetic discrimination,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, speaking with AP reporters.

“The question is if we do collect a lot of genetic material from people,” Collins asked, “are you going to see those people then injured when their health provider or employer uses that information to take away opportunities.”

Google was criticized harshly by some attendees for its recent decision to comply with demands by the Chinese government that it filter websites the regime finds objectionable. Yahoo! and Microsoft’s MSN interface have already submitted to the government’s censorship regulations, blocking search results for politically sensitive terms such as “democracy” and “Tiananmen Square”.

“Agreements between global corporations and the Chinese authorities have entrenched Internet censorship as the norm in China,” Amnesty International’s secretary general, Irene Khan, told the AP.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was also attending the Davos meeting, told Reuters that while he was unhappy about the decision, China had already been censoring the site’s search results.

Other major topics on the agenda this year include climate change, the rising price of energy and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sources: The Associated Press, Reuters

Originally published January 27, 2006

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