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Why Are International Conferences so Bad, and What Can Be Done about It?

Duncan Green's picture

Last week I attended the OECD’s 4th World Forum on Measuring Well-being. Actually, I sampled it, ducking out to look at Oxfam programmes in Delhi, meet people and give a couple of lectures in local universities. Lots of people do this, so it ought to have a name – conflirting? Condipping? Any better suggestions?

My overall impression was that official interest in well-being and its measurement continues to grow, but has moved to a national level, where numerous governments are seriously trying to put it into practice (here’s where the UK has got to, big report due next month). Although it has set up its 36 country ‘Better Life Index’ (with a funky interactive website where you can construct your own measure of well-being) and has launched the wikiprogress site, the OECD is not driving the debate as it was when I attended the previous Forum in Busan in 2010, (many fewer delegates this time around, and not much new in the debates). That is probably a good thing – national action and experimentation is what really matters.

Back to conflirting, because despite the hard work and dedication of the OECD staff, I suspect one of the reasons people do it is because many international conferences are so mind-numbingly dull, and I’m afraid much of this one followed the standard pattern. A few ‘keynote speakers’, bleary with jetlag, stumble through their papers (Joe Stiglitz and several politicians whose names escape me), or give a speech on their current interest, completely ignoring the subject of the conference (Jeff Sachs). Dry-as-dust panels of disconnected presentations – chairing is feeble in keeping to time and/or panels are over-stuffed with speakers, so there is never enough time for questions or interaction between the speakers.

As the days pass, fewer people turn up (and interestingly, start to abandon smart clothing – everything gets more casual). Even if they do, most people are on their phones doing their emails or tweeting about the meeting (guilty as charged).

Often, the only really useful activity is the networking on the margins (and in the bars, quite memorably so in Delhi, but that’s another story), but conferences take no account of this in their design, except to allow lots of coffee breaks (when those survive encroachment by over-running panels).

In terms of the timesuck of highly qualified people, and the money involved, this seems spectacularly amateurish/cavalier, especially when compared to the huge investment in improving the impact of research and development programming. So come on multilaterals and funders, what about funding/designing a ‘Conference for Impact’ programme. What would you do differently? Some ideas:

Narrow the agenda, broaden the minds: Set a specific question to be answered by all participants. At the same time as narrowing the question, broaden the range of disciplines involved – the Wellbeing conference was largely made up of government and multilateral officials and economists, (with the odd token NGO like me). What about philosophers? Religious leaders like the Buddhist abbot we consulted in Busan? Psychologists? Psychoanalysts?

Avoid academic conference formats, which seem to be the most stultifying. Panel presentations plus Q&A has to be one of the least productive ways to spur creative thinking. Import some of the less cringeworthy methods we use in NGO discussions – groupwork, world cafes, speeddating, sandpits and other innovative formats. I’m sure the private sector has lots of others.

Sort out the presentations: Ban anyone from reading out a paper; find a way to limit Powerpoints to a maximum of 20 words per slide (and urge speakers to use images); install amber and red lights on the mikes, which cut the sound off after the speaker goes into the red. Maximum of 3 speakers per panel, and ask the audience to buzz with their neighbour before going into Q&A, to get some energy back into the room.

Set up a feedback system: A public Ebay-type ratings system to show which speakers/conferences were best. As an extreme method, adopt instant audience feedback, Occupy-style (thumbs up from audience if they like the speaker, thumbs down if they don’t) or a twitter wall behind the speaker to show how they’re going down with the public.

Avoid distractions: One of the reasons people got more involved in Busan may have been the lack of opportunities for conflirting. Delhi on the other hand is stuffed with institutions people want to visit. And (provided the other factors are dealt with to create a useful event), maybe choosing a state-run hotel where the internet keeps going down (as it did in Delhi) is not such a bad idea after all.

Any other conference braindeath survivors want to add suggestions?

And here are some previous, slightly more highbrow, reflections on the purpose of conferences. I probably won’t get invited to any more now. Oh well.

Image courtesy of Ambro /

This post was originally published on From Poverty to Power

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Submitted by Stephen Close on
Thanks for these fantastic productive suggestions! I am always concerned to ensure that international conferences are most useful for the government representatives attending, who are taking time out from addressing development challenges at home. The ideal conference participants are also the busiest, impacting low-capacity agencies at home. It is incumbent on multilateral agencies organizing workshops to maximise the utility of these events. As Pacific Island Countries find themselves in the WB's East Asia Pacific region, their representatives travel for a couple of days to attend events with larger delegations from East Asian countries, where presentations are often about good practice in large middle-income countries with much greater government capacity. Our experience has been that supplementing presentation + q&a format with dedicated breakout sessions for particular groups for open discussion on what experiences apply or what different issues apply to regional sub-groups increases how useful the event is for these representatives. Action plans between country representatives and international agencies with shared accountabilities for followup action helps ensure the event has sustainable value.

Submitted by Jeannie Egan on
Thank you Duncan, I think you will get invited back because you are saying exactly what "most" people are thinking! I say let's be bold and take back our conferences! I believe that most conference organizers will consider suggestions to improve the format of their conference - especially if it is an annual gathering of like minded people who share similar functions within the community of international organizations. I have been attending the annual gathering of heads of language services that is organized by the UN every year and it shared several characteristics of the Forum that you described so endearingly, and sure enough, during the best part of the gathering - the coffee break, I found others thought so too. I started rabble-rousing about how much a peer learning session would improve the value of the event, and people listened. We now devote half a day to peer learning based on the following principles: we take stock with the community ahead of time to see what the hot topics are on which people wish to learn from each other, we break up into small groups of between 10 to 15 (self-selected) people who share similar roles, those who join each circle get to set the detailed agenda of questions to be addressed, and for three hourse we peel back the onion to get to what matters. It is informal, and we only provide a very short summary of the key points shared and the contact info of those who participated in case anyone wishes to follow up with that person after the fact, and it makes the conference!!

Submitted by Roxane on
I participated in the organisation of a big international forum where many prestigious keynotes speakers were invited so I can explain some of the reasons why the conferences seem so "amateurish". One of the first idea of the organizers is to host an event that will sound/look good. This is particularly true if this event is not coming back every year or if it is not something where only highly specialized participants will come. The organizers want to attract a good crowd and in most cases, important journalists. They need to justify the money spent by getting coverage or a high attendance. Or sometimes, they just need something flashy to show to their bosses who won't come to the conference. Specialized titles and confidential names won't really impress them, so they need something more. To reach these goals (attract journalists, a big crowd and raise the attractiveness of the insitution organizing the conference) it is also very important to get a few famous speakers and to choose a few fashionable topics to talk about. But how to make sure the famous guests will come? They are often busy and receive a lot of invitations for other conferences. You therefore need to make them feel special. They can have special requests you will address and you need to leave them a lot of freedom for their speech. Basically, if you know this very famous speaker will read a paper and be very dull, you just pretend you don't know so you'll have his/her name on your program. Similarly, if you can get 7 famous speakers for the same 45 minutes session, you'll invite them all. This is even truer for the moderator. Sometimes, a person will be picked as a moderator/president of session, just because she/he is famous in the field. It can be a very disorganised person or a very confused speaker. It doesn't matter. It is an honour to have that person managing the session so you'll take her/him anyway. For the coffee breaks, I remember raising this issue. But there are lots of ego to satisfy when you're planning a conference. If you invite this person, you need to invite this one too. If you do this theme suggested by one of the funders, you'll need to cover this one too, as suggested by this other funder... And if you're really enthusiastic about the topic of conference, you'll want to cover as many aspects as you can. This means you'll have a limited time for a lot of things you want to fill in the program. How to deal with that problem? Just skip the coffee breaks! Put a few here and there because people can't stay focus for too long but don't plan too many and don't plan specific networking time, otherwise you won't have time for everything you want to do. My managers told me "people can organize their own networking session, it's not our job". Basically, they didn't want to think about this important moment because it would spoil their all organization... These are just a few "real" issues that organizers have in mind. It may seem trivial but it's important to realize that if the organizers don't respect the will of their funders, prestigious guests and other, the conference might never be... So there is a lot of politics involved and unfortunately, that will lessen the quality of the conference!

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