A Different Kind of Davos

It's a whole different Davos this year. In the past, the first day has typically been laid back. Everyone knows they're in for a long week and they build up to it. Not so this year.

There's a frenetic energy all around and a sense of urgency to hear what people have to say. People who just a year ago were taking business meetings over coffee in lieu of a plenary are now fervently rushing to hear panelists' insights on the global economy.

To me, this means people's minds have opened up in the wake of crisis and I think that's good for all of us. For adolescent girls in the developing world, it means we are at a decisive turning point.

I went to a session called The New Economic Era yesterday. The objective was to "examine the new fundamentals of the global economy that will emerge in 2009." Needless to say, the session was packed.

Justin Yifu, Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, talked about how the growth of trade and capital inflow in developing countries over the past several years will be reversed by this financial crisis. As an observer, I definitely got the sense he was talking about not just a drop - even a big one - but a 180-degree reversal, which is concerning on a number of levels.

When things go wrong in the world, they go wrong more dramatically in developing countries. And when things go wrong in developing countries, girls are hit the hardest by far. They are the first to suffer in the face of hardship and the last to fare well in the face of recovery. As this crisis trickles (or floods) down into already-stressed, poverty-stricken areas, girls will be the first to go hungry, the first to be victims of violence, the first to lack access to health services, the first among the refugees.

If we don't make the right decisions now, the ripple effect of all these negatives could very well have a striking impact on girls and it will come at great, if not catastrophic, cost to the next generation.

In Guatemala, for example, the annual health care expenditure for girls who give birth is more than $13 million. That's just health care expenditures; it doesn't include lost potential income. The vast majority of these occur within marriage among girls who say they would choose to delay childbirth if they could. The crazy thing is, studies have shown the cost of family planning services to young people typically cost less than $20 per beneficiary. Compared to the $169 expenditure per adolescent birth, this seems like a wise investment. It seems even smarter when you realize the investment also prevents 15-19 year-old girls' leading cause of death - complications from pregnancy and childbirth.

Girls are central to pretty much every issue that's being discussed here. They're the official topic of exactly one session, but if you think about girls in the context of all of the challenges facing the world, you realize how critical they are to the solutions. Don't believe me? Then stay tuned and keep coming back. You be the judge of whether what I'm saying makes sense and let me know what you think.

For my part, I am cautiously optimistic. Today I learned that of the 400 sessions on the Forum's agenda, The Girl Effect on Development is ranked in the top 5 in registrations. There are 2,000 Davos delegates relishing the insights that could help them lead in trying times. Evidently they're open to that fact that girls just might help us get out of this mess. From what I've seen on the ground, they will do just that.

One Davos side-note, for those who want to know what the insanity here is really like: Yesterday Trevor Edwards, Nike's Global Brand & Category Management VP, IDEO's innovation guru Tim Brown and I met with Chad Hurley, the co-founder and CEO of YouTube. We reserved a space the Forum sets aside for "bi-lateral meetings." This particular building is not encumbered by logic. We went down four hallways and three unconnected staircases just to find our meeting space. At the Nike Foundation, we always talk about how important it is to find adolescent girls because they are often socially isolated at the margins of their societies. In searching for the meeting room, I had a moment on staircase number three when I thought finding girls was actually easier.