I was in Nairobi this week to attend one such conference. While travelling to the conference, I was thinking about why I went and what I got out of the many sessions that I attended in past conferences. Chatting with many of my colleagues suggests that I am not alone.
Some sceptics are critical, saying that in the age of technology and social media, which offers many great ways to learn and network, why bother with the time and expense of an in-person conference or workshop. We have an abundance of blogs, podcasts, YouTube videos and webinars at our fingertips. Others are harsher: conferences have lost their values due to boring to downright frustrating discussions and that people are on stage for publicity, not for passion and honest conversation about learning! They say, “think about all the costs associated? Flight, hotel, conference fee, drinks, food, transportation….” As the funds available for international development cooperation have flatlined in post-recession years and the recent rise of populism, inefficient use of funds can aggravate the problem.
While getting the most out of any conference is a challenge, there are so many high-quality conferences and compelling reasons for attending them. There is no substitute for attending live, face-to-face professional conferences relevant to development initiatives; they have become, it seems, unavoidable fact of working life. With clear benefits, the cost of attending a conference is an investment.
Conferences are not just about the long items on the agenda – some relevant and others no one knows why they were selected for presentation – but also the informal interactions with other attendees. This means creating new connections as well as maintaining and strengthening existing ones. Conferences enable us to become more than just a screen name or email address.
One can easily cut to the chase and just talk to people. It is common to see beaming attendees rushing into a crowd for coffee breaks and trying to make small talks. This offers the chance to reflect on presentations and to be inspired and to learn. One should not also forget the benefits of conferences for honing our communication skills, discussing ideas, and getting inputs about our work. In some cases, they are good platforms for selling ideas to people who share similar challenges and interests, which is frequently overlooked.
Development practitioners need to learn new skills and tools and collect actionable tips to stay relevant. The conference in Nairobi is an indication that everyone from donors to practitioners has become increasingly committed to making decisions that are informed by evidence. It has offered opportunities to stay up to date and learn new ways to improve knowledge in a diverse, professional environment. The conference had rich discussions on important issues of inclusion of marginalised and vulnerable groups, knowing what works and what does not and why, setting up and supporting a high-performing team, the role of technology in monitoring, the why and how of ensuring job qualities and others. Indeed, some sessions can be awfully repetitive, but one can also choose which sessions to attend even though organisers sometimes restrict participation to even out attendance of all sessions.
Discussions from the presentations have provided new ideas and trends in our field. Yet it is admittedly true that failure has been a touchy subject. Unsuccessful development initiatives offer vital lessons — but only if we are open about failure or oops moments. Most conferences, unfortunately, lack honest inquiry where successes are proudly packaged in glossy formats and heavily disseminated and presented. Among the sessions that I attended in the Nairobi conference, except for one presentation from Afghanistan and the outcome harvesting session, other presentations and discussions were more about successes. It is always tempting, and it takes courage to stand up and admit oops moments.
Although it is not the main objective, attending conferences allows development practitioners to discover a new place or city where the conference is being held and learn about its people and culture. Most development initiatives happen in complex contexts and conferences may provide to experience some of these contexts, and discover how resilient local people are despite many challenges.
It is easy to get so caught up in the daily grind that development practitioners lose motivation or excitement for their job or interests. Taking a break from our day-to-day responsibilities creates new settings for developing ideas. Conferences can be rejuvenating by being inspirational and offering energising opportunities. Listening to other people share their ideas and feeling their enthusiasm gives us the energy to tackle new challenges. In other words, conferences can be an important reminder that we are not on our own.