A group of people sit huddled together in a small room. The walls are made of wood and scraps of metal, a large piece of corrugated iron serving as roof. Suddenly; screaming outside. Gunfire pierces the air. The group huddles together, a bit closer. The sound of heavy boots thunder on the floor outside, coming ever closer. Men in camo clothing storm in and order the group to get out. At first, nobody moves. But with the cold steel of the gun barrels pointed at their heads, they don’t have a choice. The group is dragged outside, too terrified to resist, accepting their fate.
Only the militia soldiers are not what they pretend to be. They are actors, the guns in their hands harmless props. Even the small shelter they just stormed is not actually inhabited by anyone. And the refugees? They are billionaires, CEOs of large companies, politicians, famous academics, reporters. What they just lived through is part of a slum simulation called the “Refugee Run”, an event that was held 2014 in Davos, Switzerland.
Once every year, the world’s most influential leaders from industry, government, religion and science meet up in the ski resort of Davos in the Swiss Alps to discuss the most pressing problems of humanity. Founded in 1971, by German economist Klaus Schwab, the goal of the World Economic Forum is to raise awareness for global issues and to take steps towards creating a better world. In between the 200-odd official meetings; lectures and debates, available to the more than 2500 participants, they can also book a place in the so-called “X-periences”.
The X-periences entail the participants getting drawn into simulations of what it is like to live through a natural disaster, to be a Syrian refugee or to face the difficulties linked with having contracted AIDS. Depending on the available scenario, one gets to role-play for anywhere between one or two hours. This year for example, the X-perience offered the participants the “Struggle for Survival”, in which people were subjected to life in a fictional slum. They would need to fight for shelter, education, healthcare, food and water, all the while faced with the unscrupulous practices of loan sharks and corruption in the marketplace.
In order to increase the simulation’s realism, participants are stripped of their worldly belongings, such as mobile phones and wallets, and are given IDs that specify their name, qualifications, and diseases they struggle with. A person suffering from malaria, for example, might have to obtain medicine for their ailment. However, due to the conditions in the slums, that remedy might not be available to the participants, forcing them to engage in black market activities and resort to credit sharks for a loan in order to survive.
Another way of increasing the realism is the utilisation of professional props and the involvement of people that have actually lived through the various scenarios that are simulated. Amongst the volunteers that act as militia soldiers, traders and slumlords, there are some that had to live through war, poverty and a life on the run. With their help, more realistic environments are constructed, adjustments to the overall design of the simulations are made. In the debriefings after each session, they get to share their personal stories with the participants.
The organisation behind X-periences, the Hong Kong-based Crossroads Foundation, is a non-profit organisation aimed at bringing together those who can help and those in need. Their X-periences are also offered in places other than Davos all around the world, both permanently and seasonally, and are open to everyone. This means that it is not only business people which get to experience the simulations, but also school classes and children. Over the years, more than 130,000 people have taken part in the simulations, and as a result, the Crossroads Foundation is in close cooperation with the UN and the UNHCR. While the X-periences are free for those for whom payment would be prohibitive, a donation is usually expected. The rest of the costs are covered by corporate and private sponsorship.
The goals are quite obvious – people get to live through circumstances they would otherwise never get to experience, situations that may seem far away, but are actually very real. The simulations could be seen as merely educational, but they may also inspire people to engage in the field of development aid. Especially at the World Economic Forum, which revolves around finding solutions for the world’s problems, this might indeed lead to increased commitment to the goal of a world without poverty and hunger, both in people’s minds and in the form of donations.
However, X-periences are not free from controversy. Some people see it as a way for wealthy Westerners to play paupers for a day, an adventure playground for the world’s most influential people. While the Crossroads Foundation also offers scenarios where participants can spend 24 hours in a camp, the contents of the “Struggle for Survival” have been compressed into a 75-minutes simulation. The temporary nature of the simulations, along with the absence of real physical danger, prohibits real immersion.
No matter the verdict, the need for these X-periences is to showcase the disparities between the world’s richest people and the rest of mankind. Only a few days ago, the UK-based charity Oxfam released a report, according to which; just 1% of the world’s population will hold more than 50% of the world’s wealth by 2016, and the combined wealth of the world’s 80 richest people currently equals the total wealth of the bottom 50%. While the methods employed by Oxfam are subject to criticism, there is no denying the huge disparity between the bottom and the top of the world. It remains to be seen whether or not X-periences can act as part of a much-needed wake-up call.
By Michael Schätzlein
Picture 1, 2, 3, 4: Crossroads Foundation Photos, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0