What it's like at Davos when you're much younger and astronomically poorer than everybody else

A dog and its owner stroll past on the sidewalk. Round the dog's neck is a lanyard. Davos gets even more surreal

Karolina Eklow
Monday 27 January 2020 18:22
Young activists were welcomed to Davos this year alongside global powers
Young activists were welcomed to Davos this year alongside global powers

The air is crisp. The roads are icy. Snowy mountains stretch to the sky, surrounding the village of Davos like walls. This valley is the eye of a storm known for its annual gathering of elites. Over 50 years, it has hosted leaders in policy, religion and business. It is called one of the most exclusive gatherings in the world, and this year it is also welcoming young activists.

It is 8am and I stand at the bus stop, awaiting the shuttle that takes me to the congress centre. It is the fourth and final day of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum 2020. During the five minutes that I have awaited the rush hour shuttle, four helicopters have passed through the valley, en route to the meeting. I take a deep breath of cold air.

On the agenda of the final day of our schedule in Davos is an exclusive meeting with the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres. This was the peak of a week crammed with overwhelming impressions and unbelievable meetings. Around my neck rests a single white lanyard. Many say that Davos is all about this item. For better or worse, it is this plastic card that ultimately guarantees access to one of the most exclusive arenas in contemporary human civilisation. I am on safari in a jungle of elites.

Inside the massive congress centre you find walls in beige, white and blue, cloakrooms with smiling personnel, a massive apparatus for support, rooms with enormous TVs for presentations, rooms for panels and rooms for prayers and rooms for diaper changing. Plush carpets are designed to induce soft acoustics but the halls are filled with a cacophony of conversation. Some of those conversations seem urgent, important. Others seem polite, unbothered.

To walk inside the congress center is like walking inside a newspaper. Or Twitter. The density of impressions are hard to grasp and even harder to describe. Seen from anywhere else in the world, I am in a privileged position as one of few with access. But in here, I am anonymous in a cocktail of celebrities and big-shots.

Days start early and end late. Our agendas are jammed with panels, interviews, meetings and workshops. In between sessions we, like the other guests, mingle. And mingle. And mingle. We run on adrenaline. Decision fatigue strikes hard.

At night, I toss and turn in bed, interrogating impressions and trying to soberly distinguish buzzwords from pure intentions, lip service from dedication, and greenwashing from genuine ambitions. It is exhausting.

During the day, I observe influential attendees eye each other in the corridors, in panels and at coffee tables. Some I recognise — directors of institutions, CEOs of capitalist empires, chairpersons, royals. But many attendees are people that I do not recognise. Out of curiosity, I Google the names I catch on name tags and find that Google auto-fills their surname. I am reminded of how little I know. As I wonder how or why they are attending Davos, I remember that they most certainly wonder the same about me. At the time of my invitation I am 25 years old — significantly younger and astronomically poorer than the average attendee.

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Long story short: “everyone“ is there. Regardless of your interests, you’ll find the creme de la creme of that crowd in Davos. Whether you care about issues placed on the table of Lagarde, Merkel, Harari, Thunberg, Cook, Benioff or Will.i.am, you'll find these representatives in Davos. So how did I get here?

A decade ago, Professor Klaus Schwab — the founder of the World Economic Forum — scratched his head as the forum discussed global phenomena in a rapidly changing world. A new generation powered by technology, with tools created specifically for instant information access and information-sharing, was crying out for involvement in shaping the world agenda. And so it was decided that the World Economic Forum would provide a platform for 20- to 30-year-olds to self-organise in city-based ‘hubs’. This community came to be called Global Shapers. Ten years down the road, the now almost 10,000 Shapers self-organise in hubs from Dhaka, New York, Caracas to the refugee kamp Kakuma in Kenya. Hubs address local issues such as tree-planting, homelessness and sanitation. And each year, the World Economic Forum grants access for 50 Global Shapers to the Annual Meeting in Davos. That’s how I ended up traveling to snowy Switzerland in the middle of January.

What became clear to me throughout the week at Davos was that behind fancy titles are just people. It’s a cliché, but you really don’t feel it until you’re here. The Davosians slip on ice, spill coffee on their outfits, express discomfort, scroll on their phones, stand in line for the restrooms, charge their gadgets and ask whether the juice is provided for free. And, to our surprise, they are genuinely curious about us.

The week inside the congress centre offers a smorgasbord of panels, sessions and workshops. It is an intellectual delight to attend many of them. These conversations are barely ever recorded nor do they make it to the headlines. But they are world class debates that we get to hear in real time. I find myself hypnotised by the content of some discussions and even as a millennial, I forget about the digital distractions available in my pocket. We are here on the front row and we get to ask questions. Most often, we interrogate assumptions relating to inequality, short-termism, representation, mental health, sustainability and climate.

Outside, a dog and its owner passes by on the sidewalk. Around its neck, the dog carries — you guessed it — a lanyard. We attend notorious nightcaps and luxurious lunches. Alongside fellow attendees — whether CEOs or Shapers, whether from Sao Paolo or Johannesburg — we skip paying the wardrobe fee to drop our bags next to the walls. We have many justified worries, but worrying about the possibility of our saggy bags being stolen at Davos is not one of them.

Once we have reach Friday, we are well-acquainted with this bizarre arena. As I observe these corridors populated by conduits of power, I realise that I have rapidly accepted and adapted to this bubble, too. The outside feels absent. I see the congress centre not just as a representation of the world but as the world itself. This is exactly why civil society was invited in the first place, I suspect. Someone realised that the bubble needed penetrating from the outside.

In the aftermath of Davos, I have more questions than answers. Did my opinion matter? Whose opinion matters? Whose action matters? What action matters? Will this year’s promises be implemented? If they are, what net difference will it make?

As I leave Switzerland by train, my gaze trails along the landscape outside. Indifferent to titles and money, the snowy forest bows only to the hierarchy of nature. With climate change at the top of the agenda for so many young people like myself, we might hope that humanity can begin to do the same.

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