Are international conferences getting any better? A bit – thanks to some sparky new tech

April 12, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Banner-GFD2013-webv2For a ‘club of rich countries’, the OECD spends a lot of time thinking about development. It’s Development Cooperation Directorate does the number crunching on aid; the OECD Development Centre publishes annual Economic Outlooks on Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, or Latin American revenue statistics.

Last week I spent a couple of chilly days at its Paris HQ at the 5th Global Forum on Development discussing the inevitable topic – post2015 and what comes after the MDGs (background papers here). I’m trying to resist the post2015 bandwagon, but it’s generating a hell of a slipstream.

But why did they even invite me? After all, my main reaction to the last OECD conference I attended was to write a post on the awfulness of such international events (a series of soporific panels in a lightless room), and whether they can be salvaged.

So was this one any better? Yes in a few important ways. OK, it was still 300 people in an underground bunker flicking through their emails and half-listening to panels that over-ran and ate up question time, but the organizers had added some nice IT spice to the mix.

The first was a twitterwall – tweets with the conference hashtag appeared on the same screen as the speakers (and on the monitors that the speakers used to see their own powerpoints). The sense of realtime connectedness increased further when speakers wove responses to tweets into their presentations.

This really alters the dynamic of a conference, not least because people (whether inside the room or watching online) feel much freer to be critical onp15_twitter_cartoon twitter than in Q&A. The tweets are anonymous, but interestingly, a staffer told me many of the most critical ones were from junior OECD staff who would normally defer to the big cheeses on stage – a real democratising influence, even within the host institution.

In me at least, especially if everyone’s agreeing with each other, the twitterwall also induces a kamikaze urge to be rude and see it come up on the screen. The adrenalin certainly keeps sleep at bay.

The second innovation was asking people to sign up to an app ( on their smartphones (it even worked on my blackberry). This allowed the 200 people who did so to vote on questions and issues as they emerged during the seminar, including to ‘like’ the various tweets: the most popular were then passed to the panel for responses.

But ‘death by panel’ remained, an apparently immovable object in the international conference format. The standard story is that ‘it’s all about the networking in the coffee breaks’, but then why are the coffee breaks so brief, even before they are further shortened by panel over-run? There must be a reason for this particular way of renewing epistemic communities, but I honestly can’t explain it. Given the huge investment in these events, and their inefficiency in terms of debate and knowledge-sharing, they must fulfil some other deeper function, but what is it? I ended up suggesting to the hosts that the OECD invites an anthropologist to observe their next conference to try and work out what is actually going on.

As for my role in all this, I got lucky, moderating a panel on social cohesion with great speakers. Shirin Chaudhury, Bangladesh’s Minister of Women and Children’s Affairs, gave an inspirational account of her country’s affirmative action policies and efforts to mainstream gender analysis into everything from macroeconomic policy-making to stipends for schoolgirls  and ‘info ladies’ going door to door to tell women about the various government services. Pierre Jacquet of the Global Development Network was music to my ears as he called for an end to ‘useless normative statements on post2015 that start with ‘we should’’ and stressed the need to influence national political processes. Alan Hirsch from the University of Cape Town gave a balanced overview of what has/hasn’t been achieved since the end of apartheid and wondered why ‘reconciliation has not led to social cohesion’. Trinh Cong Khang of Vietnam’s Ethnic Minority Policy Department described how the government is trying to build social cohesion with previously excluded groups. All top stuff, and I may try and generate some blog fodder from them.

boring-conferenceAt a more meta level, my main takeaway from this and other panels was that people always stress the need for national ownership (eg of any post2015 goals), which usually involves adapting  whatever is globally agreed to meet national circumstances. But they then deny any trade-offs with global goals. But is that credible? If every country adapts a global instrument differently, they just become part of national political processes (and a good thing too), but lose international comparability.

At the same time, the list of global public goods/collective action problems keeps growing (finance, climate change, drugs trade, trade, tax havens etc etc). At some point, maybe there is need for a parting of the ways, with global processes focussed on collective action problems, while leaving the rest to national politics, backed where necessary by aid. Not that collective action problems are any easier to solve, of course, but it’s just that they won’t be solved anywhere else.

My other gig was an odd one – after dinner speaker with the intimidating brief to a) not repeat anything said in the conference b) be provocative and c) keep people awake. Here’s my talking points (keep clicking til they come up). I couldn’t hear any snoring at the end, so I guess I achieved at least one of my goals.

April 12, 2013
Duncan Green