Global Development's Latest Challenge: Conference Fatigue

They say those who can't do, teach. But those who can do neither? They attend conferences.
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They say those who can't do, teach. But those who can do neither? They attend conferences.

Harsh as this claim may seem, anyone who has attended a global development conference in recent years could attest to the growing degree of uniformity among these meetings: their format, their speakers, their methods of audience engagement, the depth (or lack thereof) of their dialogue, the inevitable badge-gazing as attendees stroll through lobbies and hallways, eyes glued to nametags and lanyards. Isn't it time these conferences were held accountable for serving a purpose commensurate with the goals to which they so loudly and so often aspire?

Last month, the United Nations convened its annual General Assembly, a time when organizations in global development host side events pinned to topics on the U.N.'s development agenda. Hotels and restaurants in Manhattan's Midtown East become saturated with international leaders from governments, foundations, companies, NGOs and universities who all step up to physical and digital podiums to share their perspectives.

But what these UNGA side events feature in high-level speakers they lack in ground-level substance. They seek consensus on targets and strategies to improve lives, yet their format is often one-directional and didactic. They advocate for bottom-up solutions championed by communities, yet do so employing a top-down approach championed by the zeitgeist. They emphasize the importance of measurement and accountability, yet fail to posit any means of evaluating their own effectiveness.

Another glaring trend among these events is the dramatic overuse of platitudes. Fancy-sounding but often hollow terms like "innovation," "sustainability" and "multi-sector collaboration" line presenters' remarks with the frequency of conjunctions but the support of dangling modifiers. In fact, among the UNGA side events related to women's and children's health this year, there were six events with "innovation" in their title, collectively contradicting the definition of "innovation." The truth and corresponding action behind these vapid terms tend to matter less than their expected resonance with likeminded audiences.

One major driver of this trend is the rise of the "thought leader," dubbed by the New York Times' David Brooks as "a highflying, good-doing yacht-to-yacht concept peddler...not armed with fascinating ideas but with the desire to have some." Hyperbolic or not, this observation rings true at conferences like UNGA, where thought leaders regurgitate talking points among already indoctrinated audiences whose heads are buried in the glow of their iPads, ready to tweet the latest banality echoed from the podium. And of course, to become a thought leader requires the time and money to gallivant from New York to Geneva atop the proverbial ivory tower, a luxury only afforded to a select few.

It is time for global development conferences to justify their purpose.

One encouraging movement we saw during UNGA was a campaign to topple the ivory tower, led by the maternal health advocates at White Ribbon Alliance. Determined to unseat the "usual suspects" in global health from their high-level speaking roles in favor of citizen voices, WRA found unprecedented success in elevating the real change-makers of global development. Thought leaders like the WHO's Flavia Bustreo and UN Foundation's Kathy Calvin stepped aside for "action" leaders like Rose Mlay and Lennie Kamwendo--local advocates better poised to affect change from their front-row view of underserved communities.

The momentum inspired by this campaign instills promise for other efforts to overcome the widespread conference fatigue that has emerged in global development. But we need more organizations with enough audacity to buck the trend and ask "what if?" For instance:

What if conference organizers passed up the second projection screen in the plenary hall and instead invested in a rigorous evaluation of their sessions, imploring attendees to measure success in terms of partnerships forged, commitments made, programs altered or policies enacted?

What if conferences shifted from choir-preaching panel "discussions" to serious debates about highly charged topics influencing on-the-ground development, like the role of business in alleviating poverty or the ethics of behavior-change interventions?

What if speakers and their organizations agreed to contribute to a "platitude jar" every time they plugged an inanity like "innovation," donating their "swears" to local development organizations too busy innovating to spend time talking about it?

What if conference attendees left their cell phones and iPads at the door and truly participated in each session, opting to "live-workshop" meetings rather than live-tweet them?

What if conference sessions expanded from pedantic monologues about high-level leaders reaching consensus and instead enabled real-time, open-door negotiation and agenda-setting with equal representation among all affected parties?

To think conferences like UNGA will change to more effective formats is perhaps as idealistic as it is to think that they will change global development. But groups like White Ribbon Alliance are offering exciting examples of how we can infuse more substance, purpose and (gasp) innovation into these meetings, and it'll be interesting to see whether their approach catches on. In the meantime, as we watch those who can't do continue teaching, we'll be left to attend conferences where those who can't practice continue preaching.

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