How Syria Did — and Did Not — Hang Over the Davos Conference

DAVOS, Switzerland — A group of aid workers and former refugees took over the basement of a Davos school, spooled out fake barbed wire, put up tents and corrugated metal walls and laid down straw on the floor. Then they donned military uniforms, picked up plastic AK-47s and invited CEOs and world leaders to come experience ...

Courtesy Crossroads Foundation / Blake Chalmers Photography
Courtesy Crossroads Foundation / Blake Chalmers Photography

DAVOS, Switzerland — A group of aid workers and former refugees took over the basement of a Davos school, spooled out fake barbed wire, put up tents and corrugated metal walls and laid down straw on the floor. Then they donned military uniforms, picked up plastic AK-47s and invited CEOs and world leaders to come experience a taste of refugee life.

David Livingston was one of them. He traveled from Uganda to this small mountain town to spend a week in a basement pretending to be a soldier running a Syrian refugee camp. A former refugee and child soldier himself, he comes to Davos to participate in a simulation of some of the same horrors he suffered to draw attention to the plight of refugees, especially from Syria.

Livingston and his fellow actors created an elaborate 30-minute simulation complete with sound grenades, fake gunfire, smoke machine and a lot of yelling soldiers pushing participants from one location to another. Participants take name cards, don headscarves, and descend into the chaos that organizers admit is only a tiny fraction of what refugees go through. And yet, people emerge in tears at the end.

There was good reason to be skeptical going in, given the absurdity of Davos. The forum has embraced so many different meaningless trends — everything from sustainability to "circular manufacturing" — that it’s often hard to take the place seriously. In an effort to make the meeting "greener," for instance, there was a note that only green cars would be allowed in certain areas, which was followed immediately by contact details for the helicopter service.

Though the World Economic Forum’s stated goal is "improving the state of the world," it’s better known as a place where CEOs and world leaders get a chance to speak to friendly audiences, a place where governments and companies compete to throw the most extravagant parties, and a place where economic and political soothsaying gets distilled into smart-sounding talking points that can be portioned out at other cocktail parties around the world.

The forum is a nonprofit private club of companies from around the world, some of whom pay more than half a million dollars a year for the privilege of membership. The academics, the NGOs, the journalists, and most of the young people all go for free. The organizing principle is founder Klaus Schwab’s stakeholder theory — the idea that companies are beholden not just to shareholders, but to a broader array of people who are affected by them. The meeting is supposed to bring all these people together to talk in Davos.

The forum has created so many unintelligible labels through its "knowledge generation activities" that it sometimes sounds more like a cult than a meeting about economics. With the parties, and the ubiquitous business negotiations at every free table, and the NGOs shunted off-campus, it’s easy to wonder whether the Davos dream is dead. Schwab himself frets about it.

"We fight the commercialization of the meeting," Schwab told Bloomberg News before the conference started. "The forum has a great opportunity to tell the business community: You have to act in the global public interest."

At the opening of the conference, Human Rights Watch executive director Ken Roth stood up with several other NGOs at an off-site press conference to draw attention to the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria. The timing was particularly apt with negotiators meeting in Geneva to try to work out a peace agreement at the same time. Roth pressed for the negotiators to prioritize humanitarian needs in the short term while they continue to search for a long-term solution.

"Nobody believes that we’re going to have a negotiated peace anytime soon," Roth said.

As the refugee simulation ended, the lights came up and benches were pulled out. Participants sat down and spoke about the fear, guilt, and helplessness that they felt. Sheryl Sandberg had slipped in at some point and was sitting on one of the benches, listening and holding the hand of the person next to her.

Then Livingston got up and talked about soldiers invading his village in Uganda when he was 17 and kidnapping him. Another former refugee talked about fleeing his village in Democratic Republic of Congo and living in a camp for two years. Two aid workers told first-hand accounts of the rape, abuse, and desperation of Syrian children in refugee settlements in Jordan and Lebanon.

Sandberg spoke to the group, through tears, about the necessity of economic growth to create opportunity for parents, so that children don’t end up in these situations. She had done the simulation herself two years ago at Davos. Last week she became a billionaire and got a movie deal for her book "Lean In: Women, Work, And The Will To Lead."

Crossroads, the Hong-Kong NGO that organized the event, said about 350 people took part in one of 13 sessions during the Davos meeting. It’s hard to know how many of those people go on to give money or do other things to help refugees, but organizers say people are often so moved that they commit to donating on the spot. Nestle executives have participated in past years, and then helped underwrite the simulation this year.

"There are some people who have questioned, ‘Why would you do this in the mountains of Davos?’ I can’t think of a better place," said Crossroads’ David Begbie.

"It’s absolutely important to bring these worlds together," said Christoph Sutter, head of a Swiss energy company. He said it was the best thing he’d done at Davos. Even though, as he said afterward, the extreme wealth of Davos attendees can make it harder to connect them to the experiences of the world’s poorest.

"Taking people where they are and making them aware of the situations other people face is important," said Sandberg.

People started to leave and Sandberg’s assistant was trying to urge her on to the next event. As she was leaving, she turned to one of the organizers, not offering money, but inviting him to a dinner she hosts for women in Silicon Valley, presumably giving him the chance to pitch other wealthy possible patrons.

 Twitter: @jtrindle

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