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If you want to achieve nothing – hold a mega-conference!

Jul 18, 2008 Business Daily, Management

“So the summit ended as such summits always do. The delegates agreed on the importance of the problem, the urgent requirement to spend more money: they emphasised the need for co-ordinated action, and resolved to meet again in future to reach the same conclusions. If you have no substantive analysis or common principles beyond acquiescence in platitude, that is the nature of your consensus.”

John Kay, Financial Times (10 June 2008)

John Kay is the respected economist and commentator who has published many important works over the years, in economics as well as business. I have been following his work for decades, and his recent FT piece caught my eye.

Mr Kay was referring to the recently concluded Rome Food Summit. Here, he observes acidly, the discussions were muddled, the conclusions banal, and the assertions generalised. He repeats the economist’s simple prescription: let food be grown where it grows best and shipped to where it is most needed. We make the poor better off, he points out, not by holding back technical and economic progress but by accelerating it.

Mr Kay is suspicious of these global meetings, and so am I. How much time, money and effort is wasted in planning and hosting these mega-events, when all they achieve is the the resolution to meet again and talk some more? I am beginning to suspect that holding the grand meeting is just a way of avoiding tackling the problem, whatever it is. Eliminating poverty, saving the planet, eradicating slums: these problems require insight, passion and concerted action. If you last saw any of those things present at a large meeting, do let me know.

Once you’ve lived life for a while, and have observed the activities of large organisations, you quickly conclude that the last way to get anything done is to keep talking about it. So why do the organisers of these events persist? Do they want to achieve anything, or don’t they? Sometimes, the event itself seems to be the end rather than the means. “We had a great conference.” “Ten thousand delegates from a hundred countries attended.” “So-and-so delivered a rousing address about the need for action.” And so they all went home to prepare for the next one.

There is something quite bizarre about the human condition in the 21st century. Most of the world’s people are very poor, and preoccupied with staying alive and bettering their miserable lot. The rest are preoccupied with getting a better and better standard of living, whilst simultaneously lamenting the state of the poor. Those of us who have made it seem to take great delight in rubbing shoulders with others who have, all in the cause of discussing those who haven’t.

Why not just cut out out the pretence and save the money? I haven’t done the math, but I am pretty sure that all the money saved by dismantling do-gooding global agencies and banning their conferences would form a pretty fine fund with which to ignite the enterprise of the world’s poor. Because only they can haul themselves out of poverty. The rest of us are just shooting the breeze.

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