"Every generation has its own worries - the things that really get us." -- Emma Thompson, award-winning actress and campaigner against human trafficking. Click here to read Thompson's post.
"Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to bring six brilliant young activists from around the world to the WEF Annual Meeting in Davos." - Matt Kimmich; Inspired Teacher and Mentor
My first reaction? Suspicion and doubt. My own political background is comfortably (at times smugly) left-wing: I don't throw paintbombs at the local McDonalds or Starbucks, but I am by and large wary of global capitalism, and from what I'd heard the World Economic Forun (WEF) seemed pretty much a cheerleader for global capitalism, sprinkled with some token gestures towards a social and ecological conscience. Would the six young people be used as cheap'n'easy PR for the WEF? Bright young faces making the mostly old, white and male nabobs look good?
As should be the case more often, political ideology gave way to actual experience. The inner workings of the WEF, as far as I can tell from my work with the people in Geneva and Davos, are very different from what I'd expected. I went in there expecting pod people in suits and ties - something akin to a cross between Wall Street and an ant hill. What I didn't expect was the sheer heterogeneity of the people working there. Yes, you get the economists, but the people working for the WEF are much more diverse, in terms of personality, style and ideas, than that. This, I think, is one of its strengths - you can only come up with good, new ideas if you have lots of very different minds bouncing off each other.
I also had to rethink my fear that the WEF wanted the young activists in Davos to make themselves look better to the critics. Of course, bringing six young people from around the world to the Annual Meeting, putting them on one panel and dubbing them "the Voice of Youth" does smack of tokenism. At the same time, the WEF staffers we worked with showed a commitment to the project and to the young people, that I wouldn't have expected. They were also honest.
Would the world leaders listen to six teenagers from around the world? Many, indeed most, wouldn't. They would think wistfully, "Ah, youthful idealism..." and then go back to doing things exactly the way they always do them. But, let's not forget, 2008 was only the second year that the WEF asked the British Council to bring a youth voice to Davos - these changes happen in small steps. It would be both churlish and unrealistic to expect them to go from no young people to a WEF Youthfest within two years. More importantly, if 99 people basically ignore or dismiss what our people would say in Davos, that doesn't matter - what matters is that one person listens... and that person may then open doors for the six that would otherwise remain shut.
That left my last fear unanswered, though. My own experience with 16-19 year olds (teaching at high school level) was, shall we say, mixed. Quite frankly, I was afraid that these young activists would be naïve idealists. As a part of the application process, they all had to submit a 2-minute YouTube video. You can judge communication skills and personality, at least to some extent, from such a video, but it's more difficult to gauge maturity, not necessarily the quality most associated with teenagers. Even within the larger group of 60 coming to Guildford, England the week before the WEF Annual Meeting, would there be six that were Davos material?
The first participants I met in Guildford were the delegates from South Africa and Mauritius. It took less than a minute for my fear to go up in a little puff of smoke, and this didn't change when I met the rest of the group over the next few days. Talking to the young people - all of them, whether they were 16 or 19, whether they were from Spain, New Zealand, Nigeria, Japan, Nepal, Iraq or indeed Switzerland, were articulate, intelligent, committed. They weren't the sort of people who have lofty ideals that burst like so many soap bubbles when they come in contact with reality... but neither had they developed the self-indulgent cynicism people usually develop in their 20s that really is a cheap excuse for complacency - "Yes, it'd be better if, but realistically speaking, it won't work, so let's not do anything...".
As much as the cynical voice in my head dislikes the word, the Guildford 60 and the Davos 6 were, in the end, inspiring.
See more on www.roadtodavos.net.
To see the entire "Road to Davos" series, click here.