The Common Good

Sign of the Times: CEOs Play 'Refugees' at Forum

Gucci Group Chief Executive Robert Polet switched off his BlackBerry, wrapped his head in a bandage and became Mustafa, a 40-year-old refugee in desperate search of his six lost children. As a war raged outside his barbed-wire-encased refugee camp, Mustafa slept on the muddy floor of a canvas tent and drank water out of a tin bowl.

"Please, please, help me find my children," he begged as an armed guard pinned him down to the ground, a rifle to his neck.

The simulation of a refugee camp -- a one-hour exercise co-sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees -- is one of the more earnest manifestations of the please-forgive-me spirit at Davos this year.

"What a humbling experience to feel so defenseless," said Mr. Polet, who runs one of the world's biggest luxury-goods companies, as he brushed off the dirt from his corduroys and stepped out of his role at the end of the simulation in a concrete basement near the main conference center. This conference of global highfliers has long been known for excess of glitz, parties and private planes. This year, there is some regret, too.

The global recession has sapped the confidence of bankers, corporate executives and other onetime evangelists of globalization who gather here. There is little Hollywood attendance, too, with no Angelina Jolie or Sharon Stone, who have participated in the past. On the ground, there have many more panels on what went wrong in the economy and fewer sessions on lighter subjects such as creativity or the arts.

Jim Wallis, a several-time Davos attendee who runs Sojourners USA, a Christian social-justice network, says that instead of being relegated to panels that dealt solely on religion or social issues, he has been invited to speak on big-ticket panels -- including one on the values of capitalism with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo Inc.

Many here have flown in on private jets. But the conference's organizers are now urging everyone not to take public transportation and to walk the icy streets of tiny Davos instead: All participants have been given a pedometer to count their steps. Dinners, panels and bleary-eyed nightcaps have been marked by self-flagellation. Some 100 conference-goers were asked to vote on the question: "What policy assumption led to the greatest damage to the global economy?" The winner, with 50.8% of the vote was "self-regulation of markets."

At a dinner with business and political officials to examine the U.S. financial meltdown, Morgan Stanley's chairman for Asia, Stephen Roach, responded to the question, "How could bankers be so stupid?" by posing his own questions: "How could regulators be so stupid? How could borrowers be so stupid? How could politicians be so stupid? C'mon guys, how could all you been so stupid?"

Not all the glitz is gone, of course. Google Inc. is planning to host its annual dancing and booze party on Friday night and another evening of revelry has been scheduled by Bollywood actors and directors. Still, the economic crisis is looming large here, prompting some to switch venue -- at least for a couple of hours.

The idea behind the refugee simulation is to give people a taste of the life led by 32.9 million displaced people around the world who live in refugee camps for weeks, months or even more than a decade, says David Begbie, who together with his parents works for the Hong Kong-based Crossroads Foundation Ltd., which staged the simulations. Refugee camps are often set up spontaneously by displaced people and have little oversight. Even camps run by the United Nations are often beset by corrupt guards or checkpoint officials surrounding the area, Mr. Begbie says.

The nonprofit organization, which was founded 13 years ago, sends humanitarian aid to homeless people, disaster victims, refugees and others in need from China to Afghanistan to Cambodia. In Davos, Crossroads has teamed up with UNHCR and a Davos nonprofit called Global Risk Forum to provide the simulation, which is held four or five times a day for groups of 15-30 participants. Everyone is given a role to play.

WSJ Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray describes the mood at the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Unlike in years past, where people came to impart knowledge, this year everyone is searching for answers.

Mr. Polet, a former Unilever executive who runs some of the world's most expensive fashion labels including Gucci, Bottega Veneta and Yves Saint Laurent, came to Davos to attend panels and speak at one session on how the crisis has changed consumer behavior and network.

On Thursday, he became Mustafa -- a farmer who had been caught in the middle of a war and, in fleeing, had lost track of his wife and six children. Before the session started, Mr. Polet was told to leave his phone and BlackBerry behind. He was given an identity card, a little bit of money -- represented by a yellow piece of paper in a Ziploc bag -- and a bandage for his head.

As he and other refugees walked to the camp -- a structure of concrete floor, hay, barbed wire and canvas tents strung on ropes -- armed militia ambushed them, ordering everyone to lie flat on their stomachs amid the sound of exploding bombs. Mustafa, in his brown corduroys and tweed jacket, lay with his head in hay for several minutes as a soldier pointed a gun to his back. Then, during the journey to the camp, one of the refugees -- a Crossroads actress -- stepped on a make-believe land mine and was carried away, artificial blood streaming down her leg.

Nighttime fell (the lights were switched off) and Mustafa was ordered into a canvas tent, where he curled up on the ground and closed his eyes. Sounds of children wailing and women screaming filled the air.

At one point, Mustafa got up and began pleading with the soldiers to find his children. When he refused to get back in the tent, the soldiers pushed him onto the ground, holding rifles to his head. "You said you would find my children. I'm not going anywhere until you do," insisted Mustafa.

The UNHCR says it timed the event for Davos, figuring it could rope in some corporate chieftains who might come through with contributions of money or technology. But the global downturn gives the event added piquancy, says U.N. High Commissioner António Guterres.

"We should have the same level of determination in saving lives as in saving banks," Mr. Guterres said.