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Responsible Capitalism or Snow Polo for the Rich?

Antonia van de Velde | Digital News Editor, CNBC Europe
Monday, 21 Jan 2013 | 9:30 AM ET
Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Jason Alden | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Klaus Schwab, chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Growing up in wartime Germany shaped Klaus Schwab's life. The founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum was born in Ravensburg, Germany in 1937, just before the Second World War broke out.

He has said he is interested in "reconciliation" and "dialogue" and strongly believes the World Economic Forum (WEF) is a force for good.

The Forum's annual get-togethers in Davos, started in 1971, have been widely criticized as a week-long party for the rich and powerful. But Schwab believes that a world without dialogue would be a selfish one, and says businesses and governments should work together with civil society.

(Watch: Maria Bartiromo and Steve Liesman on Their Davos Expectations)

And while some of the participants primarily travel to the Swiss ski resort to network, catch up with peers, and ski, many also engage in debates about how to improve healthcare and education across the globe.

"There's a very practical and pragmatic reason to go," David Jones, CEO of advertising group Havas said. "Pretty much every single person you will want to meet with in your field is there." He added that meetings are also "incredibly focused" as everybody has a busy schedule.

Starbucks' recent experience in the U.K. serves as a potent reminder of the importance of corporate social responsibility. News that the American chain had only paid $13.8 million in corporate tax since it launched in the country over a decade ago led to a public outcry.

(Read more: Is Income Inequality the Biggest Global Risk?)

"From 2010 there have been mass movements against companies that behave in the wrong way," Jones said.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) now actively take part in the debates held at Davos, and initiatives such as the U.N.'s 'Refugee Run,' in which participants are invited to "experience" life in a refugee camp, are no longer seen as gimmicks.

In addition, the Forum has tried to tackle issues such as gender inequality by introducing a quota requiring its "strategic partners" -- comprising many of the world's top firms -- to include one woman among their five delegates.

Barbara Stocking, chief executive of U.K.-based charity Oxfam, will be attending the meetings in Davos, and said it's her job to represent the interests of the millions of poor people her organization works for.

(Read more: It's the US, Not Europe, Discussed at Davos)

"Poverty is about power and politics. For me, meeting world leaders, economic thinkers, and heads of the world's very biggest corporations, means a fleeting chance to influence the path of global development," she said.

"The private sector especially has a vital role to play in tackling the injustice of poverty, from regulations on land grabs and commodity markets to empowering small holder farmers in their supply chains."

Marco Magnani, a Senior Fellow at Harvard University, agreed the focus at the gathering has shifted more toward socially responsible business in recent years.

"There are lots of people with a lot of power and a lot of money. That's human. That happens everywhere," he said. "But it's a great thermometer of the world."

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