Trudeau mania, the power of the image, and how yoghurt can help refugees

If there’s one person having a great World Economic Forum, it’s Justin Trudeau. Appearing on multiple panels, taking selfies with everyone, and delivering a vision of inclusivity, feminism and diversity, he’s wowing everyone.

Last night’s Canada reception must have been one of the best attended at the Forum. With squeezing room only, Trudeau-mania was in full swing as he went round literally meeting the entire reception and taking selfie after selfie. Even Bono entering the room only briefly detracted attention. And it’s no wonder. He’s a charismatic guy, for sure, and he has been presenting such a fresh and positive vision for what political leadership can look like.

Earlier in the day, I (along with a group of other NGO leaders) had a great meeting with him, where we covered everything from human rights to gender equality, humanitarian response, arms deals, climate change, refugees and the importance of open and inclusive government.

We didn’t have to lobby for the meeting with him – the invitation came from Trudeau himself, which is a rarity in my world. His approach was direct, accessible, laying out his vision but inviting us to be critical of it. He introduced himself as Canada’s first feminist Prime Minister, going on to outline his vision for equality (a good start with his cabinet). He aims, among many things, to stop the focus on Muslim’s women’s clothing and move that focus towards inclusivity instead.

In our meeting, he encouraged critical questions. It’s a good thing he was receptive to getting them, because mine were on Canada’s largest ever arms deal ($15bn for light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia). I asked why this has not yet been suspended with a public review. Responding positively, Trudeau repeated his election pledge for Canada to join the Arms Trade Treaty (and with the right legislation in place so that it is implemented). On the Saudi deal, there was no commitment to suspend it, but there was to examine future contracts with much more scrutiny.

Trudeau has a huge challenge now to live up to the expectations he’s generated of what he’s going to do. I don’t know if can realise them, but I do know that if he continues in the way he’s been at Davos, then there’s going to be a whole new Canada on the international scene. He has shown other leaders that you can welcome rather than fear refugees, and win massive electoral support in the process.

Another inspiring encounter was with the photographer Platon. He spoke at ‘Human Faces of Conflict’, showing his stunning and moving photos of grieving parents, war-weary soldiers and tired politicians. His story behind his best-known photo, and how it led to Colin Powell shifting his party allegiance in the US, left much of the room silently in tears. He also helped strip away the intimidation factor that can be felt at Davos, with so many leaders in their fields in one place. When he spoke to the assembly about getting through the labyrinthine security and heaving armed escort in order to photograph Russian President Vladimir Putin in a private sitting, Platon told himself: “He’s just a bloke. He’s powerful and important, but he’s also just a bloke”. I reckon those are wise words for meeting people here too.

Yesterday also saw the launch of a new public-private initiative to tackle the challenges of refugees and channel the substantial positive public opinion that does exist – despite the negative, extreme rhetoric of some – into positive action. A panel including Sharan Burrows (more on the fantastic WEF co-chair in next blog), Richard Branson, Lord Malloch-Brown and Hamdi Ulukaya discussed the findings of a recent attitudinal survey in Europe toward refugees. Despite what the media may lead you to believe, the positive results show there is a great deal of compassion out there for refugees, but many are frustrated and don’t know how to help.


Hamdi Ulukaya, Founder and CEO of Chobani with Control Arms Director Anna Macdonald at the WEF


Hamdi, a billionaire from his Chobani yoghurt business in New York, led the way with his story of how he has deliberately recruited 30% of his staff from the refugee population. He makes this work by employing translators in his workplaces and investing in the education of his worker’s kids. He’s passionate about the need to solve the Syrian conflict, showing how business can do so much more to help in the meantime, and on simultaneously reducing unemployment. We need more business leaders like Hamdi.

The White Helmets in Syria – a group of unarmed, neutral civilians who rescue people after bombings and attacks, are an example of some of the heroic efforts of ordinary people in Syria. This amazing video shows a few of them (warning, you will cry).

I am struck that even in Davos, with so many leaders from so many sectors, things can still be siloed. The global refugees crisis is a massive problem (although actually least of all in Europe, where refugees are less than 0.02% of the population (compared to 20% in tiny Lebanon). Despite this, discussions on tools to help solve and prevent conflicts are often discussed separately. Its great that the Forum is tackling the issue of fully autonomous weapons, or killer robots head on, but if leaders want to reduce the situations that lead to so many fleeing their homes, they need to ensure they are looking at the supply of weapons, and their use as well.