I write this from Vipiteno, a small Italian town nestled in the mountains 15km from the Austrian border. After hiking, hitch-hiking, and couch surfing my way from Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I’ve finally travelled far enough to tell people without too much deception that “when I was younger I walked across the Alps.” And for the first time since it began, I have some time to reflect on the G20 Youth Forum.
Dylan, Emily (also from New Zealand), and Matt
Dylan and I took the bus from Munich to Garmisch on May 7. As we passed through the still-impressive remnants of what used to be an impenetrable coniferous forest, I thought how the Romans struggled for centuries to control this rough territory north of the Alps. (It was in thick forest much like this that Varus lost his legions, further north, at the hands of the Germanic tribes.) Plains gradually turned into foothills, foothills into mountains, and by early afternoon we arrived in Garmisch – full of excitement at what might lie before us. Stepping down from the bus, I had a strong feeling that before the sun had time to set, we would meet people who would remain our friends for life.
The Atlas Posthotel – our residence in Garmisch – had an atmosphere more suited to the 19th century than to the 21st. Stepping down creaking hallways and up venerable old fade-carpeted staircases, it felt as though we were participating in the Congress of Vienna rather than the G20 Youth Forum. Wall hangings, dimly lit and painted with traditional Bavarian scenes (deer in Alpine forest, beautiful stout women, men in lederhosen carrying sheep), decorated the dark-stained walls. I half expected to see Talleyrand and Metternich emerge from one of the bedrooms. The atmosphere of Garmisch as a whole was similarly exotic, and I think it affected everybody in the same way. Thrown out of their familiar environments, everyone at the forum was amazingly receptive to new ideas – and open to dangerous conversations.
When an American brought up the topic of Ukraine at a table full of Russian students, there was an audible gasp. Everybody looked at the Russians to see what their reaction would be. To our surprise, instead of reacting with anger or denial, the Russians embarked upon a rational – even objective – examination of the crisis. Energetic discussion ensued, and there were valid points made by both sides. Needless to say, this taught me a lot about the Ukraine crisis – I began to realise just how complex and fragile the situation is becoming. “We Russians are crying when we watch the news on TV” said one student. “We never thought this could happen to fellow Slavs. My aunt is Ukrainian.” When I remarked that Ukraine seemed on the verge of civil war, I was told: “This is already civil war.”
I was to learn even more during the actual proceedings of the conference. Though conversation flowed more freely in the evenings (aided perhaps by champagne), the most substantial discussion took place in sober conference rooms during the daytime. Students and professors presented their detailed research on a variety of topics. Notably, our small round table (on Global Politics) was host to a professor and two students from the University of Macau, China. This guaranteed an interesting discussion: first, when a lecturer from South Africa spoke with conviction about Chinese investment in Africa; and second, when my friend Alejandro gave his presentation on Chinese minority groups (especially those hostile to the Chinese state). Once again, substantive and interesting discussion followed, instead of the explosive arguments we all feared.
Dylan and Nisha taking the live TV crews in their stride
I was particularly blown away by a presentation delivered by an Australian girl called Claire. Her research was a damning indictment against the treatment of Aborigines by the Australian government. It’s common to see passion in a student, and it’s common to see intelligence; but it’s not so common to see these qualities mixed to the extent they were in Claire. And yet, there were dozens of others like her at the forum. I can’t wait to see what the Australia – and the world – of her generation will look like in years to come.
Over the next few days, Dylan and I established a network of friends who, when the conference was over, spread themselves around the world with promises that we could stay with them anytime we wished. Among them were Lina, an Albanian-Italian-Canadian girl (for want of space to write her story in full); Alejandro, a Costa Rican who speaks fluent Russian and Chinese; Miguel, a young Mexican polymath; Greg, an American student of Arabic who had travelled in Palestine – and so many more. Writing their names alongside a single-sentence bio really doesn’t do any of them justice. Every person I got to know clearly wanted to do something big with their lives; perhaps the same could be said about anyone, but these were the candidates I’d hedge my bets on to actually do it.
“Wherever you see injustice, take action. It concerns all of us.”
These closing words, spoken by Professor Michael Baffoe at the plenary section of yesterday’s opening ceremony, seemed to encapsulate the primary message of this Forum: it is our individual and collective responsibility to affect positive social change in the world. The G20 Youth Forum takes as its primary goal to inspire, encourage and prepare young leaders to undertake this task.
The ceremony was a grand affair, with orchestral performances, sweeping speeches and diverse panel of plenary session speakers. Matt and I took our seats among hundreds of other participants, comprising students, academics, parliamentary representatives and business people from all over the world, and listened to the president of the G8 & G20 Alumni Association, Ksenia Khoruzhnikova, as she spoke about the importance of international dialogue and cooperation and the goals of the G20 Youth Forum.
The plenary session had a diverse range of speakers. Professor Baffoe, who teaches on the subjects of immigration and international community development at the University of Manitoba, Canada, used his speech to call for a further research into effective immigration policy. A student from Australia, Benjamin Robinson discussed his experience founding a support service at his university to help students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds. A student from the UK, Apurv Gupta, discussed his involvement in the empowerment of women in India, and Yanjie Yang, from China, shared her experiences in leading successful environmental protests in China.
“For all of those people at home, who could not be here at this conference, bring what you learn back to them. Be effective agents of change.” – Apurv Gupta Student and Vice President of UNICEF UK Edinburgh ‘on campus’ branch, UK.
Perhaps the most impressive panellist, however, was 16-year-old Felix Finkbeiner, who shared his story of mobilising thousands of people around the world to take action on climate change through his organisation Plant-for-the-Planet. The organisation grew out of a class project on environmental sustainability, which he completed at the age of 9. After mobilising the help of his class, and later his community, Felix’s organisation grew into an international phenomenon, which has been responsible for the planting of some 12 billion trees worldwide.
“If you want to walk fast, walk alone, if you want to walk far, walk with many” – Felix Finkbeiner, quoting an African proverb.
Later that night, Matt and I sat with Felix over dinner. We were very impressed by his intelligence, his values, and his quiet humour and humility. Our discussions led through a range of interesting topics – language, history, economics, culture, our lives and interests, our hopes for the future – and left me feeling both humbled and inspired.
It is conversations like these, I realised, that make youth conferences so special and important. Of all the results of this Forum, the one that is most tangible, most special, and most likely to contribute to international cooperation, peace and mutual understanding in the future, is the network developed between engaged and inspired young people brought together from around the world.
Today – the day before the G20 Youth Forum begins – I visited the remains of the old concentration camp at Dachau, 15km from Munich. Some might think this a slightly controversial choice of destination, given that today is my first ever full day in Germany. But if any single day trip could suggest that the world’s problems should be taken seriously, this would be it. The Biergärten and Schnäpse can come later.
After disembarking from my train to Dachau, I followed a crowd to a waiting bus, which travels the line between the train station and the Konzentrationslager. The crowd – composed mostly of young German students – filed into the bus. Those who had no place to sit were required to stand, shoulder to shoulder. The mood was nevertheless congenial among the students: boys joked; girls leaned fashionably against the edges of seats; and the introverts among them, sitting beside the windows, gazed out at the passing fields.
Though it was a perfectly innocent bus ride, I was unable to avoid its awful association. As a dozen healthy arms all around me clung onto the handrails above, tensing and relaxing with each movement of the bus on its way to the camp, I remembered my most grim history lessons.
“Work brings Freedom”
Dachau and its surrounds are now lush, green, and – I say with hesitation – almost beautiful. Daisies and dandelions abound in the long grass. Paths wind through the tall trees, across gently-flowing streams. It was a warm spring day, and birdsong filled the air under a cloudless blue sky. The former ugliness of the area had in most places been replaced by greenery. Inside the prisoners’ camp, two long rows of poplars stood between two long rows of barrack houses. I assumed that these trees had also been planted after the liberation, but later discovered that they were in fact planted by the SS to feature in photos and films of the camp – in other words, for propaganda purposes.
I sat in the shade of an old barracks, jotting down some of my impressions. As I looked up from the page, I noticed the precision with which the foundations of the barrack buildings were aligned. Angle met angle as far as I could see. I later read that Helmut Striffler, a German architect, regarded the right angle as a symbol of the Nazi murder system. The writer Heinrich Mann – whose books were among the many burned by the regime – spoke of “exactness within the dreadful”. And a Protestant church, erected on the grounds of the camp in the 1960s, had therefore been constructed without a single right angle.
The part of the camp where I sat was empty, except for two blackbirds which dug for worms in the grass beneath a watchtower on the perimeter. Another group of German students laughed and joked somewhere in the distance. But far from intruding on the hushed atmosphere of the camp, their unspoiled happiness only brought to my mind another dark association. Seventy years ago, people just like these German students were compelled to live and die within these same barbed wire fences. As if this association needed underlining, I glimpsed a schoolboy who looked almost exactly like Peter van Daan, the love interest of Anne Frank.
This post is hardly related to the G20 Forum, which begins tomorrow, but it did seem to be an experience worth sharing – and remembering, as we explore some of the world’s most pressing issues in the days to come. Even though I studied history at university, I left the camp with the feeling that I should know much more.
The G20 Youth Forum annually brings together 1200 young leaders (young parliamentarians, businesspeople, students and academics) to engage in dialogue and debate on a number of pressing international issues. The Forum is divided into three concurrent events: a Summit, a Conference, and a Young Parliamentarians’ Debate.
The Forum aims to reflect, and ultimately contribute to, the annual G20 Leaders Summit, which brings together prime ministers and heads of states to foster international cooperation in achieving goals in economic growth, trade, financial regulation, good governance and development. The 20 members of the organisation are: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, United Kingdom, United States, and the European Union. Although not one of the G20 member states, New Zealand has this year been invited to take part in the Summit, which will take place in Australia.
How will we be taking part?
Matt Hayes and I will spend most of our time at the Forum taking part in the Conference. We will take part in a round table discussion entitled “World Politics and International Relations”, where we will be responsible for reading and critiquing academic papers, helping to form the agenda for discussion, and contributing to debate on a number of global issues. I will also be presenting a research paper I wrote about the causes and consequences of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, with a focus on Greece.
Another exciting opportunity we will have is to take part in a joint session with the Summit participants and the Young Parliamentarians. The topic of this session will be “Global Migration Issues: cultural dimension, working places and globalisation”, and Matt and I are currently working with the other members of this discussion group to form the agenda for discussion. The topics we have so far proposed to discuss are “Brain Drain in the Developing World”, and “Integration and Treatment of Refugees in Host Countries”. We also expect, among other topics, to discuss the Syrian crisis and the challenges associated with providing for the thousands of refugees displaced by the conflict.
More about the Forum
The primary goal of the Youth Summit is to publish a communiqué with policy recommendations that will be presented to the G20 heads of state. The work towards this will be done within five committees, which will work in parallel:
- Entrepreneurial Climate for Youth
- Family and Career Opportunities for Young People
- Accessibility of Education and Human Rights
- Food Security and Resources of the Future
- Tax System and Living Conditions for Youth
Running alongside the Summit, the Conference will bring students and academics from the 200 best universities worldwide to present papers and debate themes of relevance to the G20 Summit agenda. The conference will comprise eight round tables working in parallel on the following topics:
- Economics and Finance
- Law and Human Rights
- World Politics and International relations
- Social Affairs and Medicine
- Ecology, Environment and Energy
- Design, Technology and Innovations
- Education and Youth
- Humanities: history, philosophy, linguistics, arts and journalism
The third event of the Forum will bring together Young Parliamentarians from all the G20 countries in order to encourage cooperation with the view to exchanging ideas and experience with regard to legislation creation. The result of this event will be a joint statement of cooperation amongst Young G20 Parliamentarians.