- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

DAVOS, Switzerland — It is billed as the World Economic Forum, but at times during this five-day talkfest high in the Swiss mountains, it has felt more like an Alpine version of the Oscars.

In one corner of a bunkerlike hall in central Davos, actress Sharon Stone is lobbying Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, to provide more money to provide mosquito nets to prevent malaria.

In another, actress Angelina Jolie is talking about her work as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, but the media is more interested in snapping photos of the pouting actress than in finding out her views on internally displaced persons in Sudan’s troubled Darfur region.

Downstairs, U2 frontman Bono is sharing a platform with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on ending extreme poverty in Africa.

The next day, Bono is back on stage with French Finance Minister Herve Gaymard, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and a gaggle of development campaigners, as well as with British Chancellor Gordon Brown — who quips that he “may be the last person wearing a suit” at Davos.

“They say Davos is just about business, but Davos is starting to change,” Mr. N’Dour says.

It certainly is. Most of the headlines coming out of this annual meeting of the rich, famous and powerful have been about debt eradication and malaria prevention, rather than currency fluctuations and stock-market bubbles.

Blame — or perhaps thank — the celebrities, who every year flock to Davos for five days of skiing, schmoozing and arm-twisting.

After an emotional speech by newly elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, actor Richard Gere and singer Lionel Richie came onto the stage to receive Crystal Awards for humanitarian work from WEF founder Klaus Schwab.

At times, the clutch of A-list Hollywood celebrities and rock stars have appeared to eclipse the 2,200 politicians, academics, campaigners and businessmen at the WEF annual forum, whose central theme is “taking responsibility for tough choices.”

Certainly, more people turned up at Miss Jolie’s press conference than to hear European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso’s speech about economic reform. But listening to the former Portuguese prime minister talk about boosting growth while protecting the European social model, one can understand why.

One critic once described the WEF as a “temple of capitalist narcissism.” But that narcissism may help save lives and draw attention to causes like banning land mines and providing cheap drugs for AIDS victims.

In five minutes on Friday, Miss Stone used her star power to raise more than $1 million to fight malaria. In the middle of a debate on poverty in Africa, the “Basic Instinct” star stood up and told Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa: “I’d like to offer you $10,000 to buy some bed nets today.”

Miss Stone then implored other delegates to get out their checkbooks. “Just stand up. Just stand up. People are dying in his country today, and that is not OK with me.”

Thirty businessmen responded, and within five minutes, $1 million was pledged.

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