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What’s the point of huge conferences?

Oct 08, 2006 Management, Sunday Nation

We love mega-conferences in Kenya, do we not? We take great pride in the arrival of thousands of delegates from all around the globe, assembling in our land to debate the great issues of the day. Whenever one of these shows is rolling into town, we get all excited: we spruce up the city, flatten the kiosks, switch on the fountains, put on our broadest smiles and prepare to meet and greet the visitors.

Why do we love these super-spectacular gatherings so? There are probably three seemingly sound reasons. First, these things are always good and noble, are they not? The theme of the international bash is usually something lofty like eradicating poverty, eliminating slums, saving the environment or promoting democracy. Isn’t it an excellent thing that thousands of people get together to discuss and debate the problems of our time?

Second, the choice of Kenya as a destination is seen as recognition of our place in the world, a vote of trust in our facilities and hospitality. The government of the day always takes particular pride in hosting the mega-conference: it is a vindication of its policies and stewardship.

Third, and perhaps most importantly to many, these people spend a lot of money! They fill our hotel beds, book major conference venues, eat out a lot and shop till they drop. Hoteliers, restaurateurs, taxi drivers, shopkeepers and peddlers of curios rub their hands in glee whenever the conference circus is in town: rich pickings for all. The economy gets a welcome boost; Kenya’s attractions get showcased.

A good time is had by all. So what’s the argument here? I have a problem with reason number one: the worthiness of the enterprise. I find it difficult to believe that anything of meaning can be achieved by gathering many thousands of people into one room and asking them to conduct ‘fruitful deliberations’. Necessary – perhaps. Useful, productive, cost-effective – absolutely not.

The United Kingdom’s ruling Labour Party held its annual conference in Manchester last week. This is where the party faithful gather to pay homage to their leaders, discuss policy matters and dabble in other weighty issues. The New Statesman magazine devised a very funny ‘Buzzword Bingo’ card for its readers to cut out and take to the conference. The card contained all the buzzwords likely to be heard during the oh-so-important speeches: things like ‘common values’, ‘enabling state’, ‘united party’, ‘new era’, ‘social cohesion’ and ‘protecting our citizens’. The magazine’s cheeky idea was that you would mark the words on your card as you heard them said, and once you got five in a row you would shoot up and shout “Bingo!”

Interestingly, a little further down in the magazine was an advert: “Sunday is New Statesman day at the Labour Party Conference; the New Statesman party is always the best party”. For all its irreverence, the cheeky magazine doesn’t miss the opportunity to host a party. And therein lies the problem: even if the venture is futile and misplaced, everyone gains something out of it. That’s why the damn thing is held every year.

Here in Kenya, we could devise our own Bingo card with our own set of buzzwords that could be used in pretty much any conference that is hosted here. Here are some: ‘stakeholder frameworks’; ‘sustainable development’; ‘democratic space’; ‘collective choices’; ‘conflict management’; ‘pro-poor policies’; ‘socio-economic dynamics’; ‘most vulnerable communities’; ‘gender equity’; ‘private-public partnerships’; ‘targeted interventions’; ‘cross-border coalitions’. Try it and see: I guarantee you’ll be shouting ‘Bingo!’ in no time at all, perhaps even in the opening address. And then you can leave and do something useful.

They are all good words, loaded with good intentions. Some of them even mean something in English. But what do they mean in the context of a speech made to the assembled throng of thousands? Meaningless mumbles and long-winded waffle? We make all manner of grand declarations, call for more dialogue, more conferences, more yack-yack-yack. What do we achieve? Is this really how thinking happens, how the world is changed – amidst the heaving herd?

We have intimate knowledge of the inadequacies of the great assembly. Two or three years ago we sat down as a nation to make a new constitution. We thought, in our wisdom, that the way to do this was to create a perfectly representative forum where all the voices from all the corners of the land would be heard. The multitudes gathered at the Bomas of Kenya, particular interests in hand, and plunged into the fray. We emerged from the process with two things: one, a document that tried to be all things to all people at all times; two, an unworkable draft – because those that drafted it were not the holders of power. They spent weeks and months shouting themselves hoarse, but they did not ultimately have the authority to enact their output.

We should have learned. For one thing, that great thinking is done by individuals, or by small teams whose members bounce ideas off each other and get a good creative buzz going; it cannot be done by a cast of thousands, in between keynote addresses. And for another, that the exercise of power must be understood very carefully before we set out to change the world. The holders of that power tend to constitute a small, select group – not the multitudinous melange of every possible vested interest.

So if the colossal convention and the gargantuan gathering have no real usefulness – they neither result in new thinking nor in any meaningful change in the world – why on earth do we do them? Partly because the organisers and participants like to have their egos fed – it’s great to have an assembly of thousands for your keynote address in which you say all the right things and have the audience hanging on your every word, is it not? Or so you think. It’s great to have the biggest audience ever, even bigger than the last such bash which itself broke new records, is it not?

We also have to get the people together because we can’t trust a few people to act in everyone’s interest. That’s why the throng is there – to feel that it participated in greatness. And that is why nearly every large event is stage-managed: the main ideas are crafted in advance by a small and powerful band of movers and shakers. The conference itself is so much eye-wash.

And here’s the most compelling reason to keep doing these things: someone else pays! Usually, some mug of a taxpayer somewhere is footing the bill – for the flights, the hotels, the venues, the entertainment – even the shopping. Watch the delegates doze by day and party by night. Watch them catch the flight home laden with five bags each. Watch them tell their children how they attended the landmark event that changed the world. Watch them forget that they personally contributed nothing, advanced nothing, achieved nothing. The event is the thing, not the result. The poor, in whose name it is all usually done, look on bemused.

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