Bringing the debate home: International conferences as a strategy

26 April 2016

In 2014, Peru hosted the COP20. Lima was the centre of the climate change community for two whole weeks. Anyone who is anyone in the sector travelled to Peru. They hosted events, organised conferences, participated in panels, and shared ideas and advice with each other. For an eager young climate change student those two weeks would be the equivalent of a PhD.  And all in the confines of the COP venue and two or three other sites over the weekend.

Yet, based on a review of the organisations that I was in charge of, Peru failed to take full advantage of this opportunity. It did other things rather well.

In two of the main weekend conferences organised, the Development and Climate Days (organised by ODI and IIED from the UK) and the Global Landscapes Forum (organised by CIFOR) Peruvian researchers were all but absent. Certainly they were nowhere to be seen among the speakers.

In the venue, stand after stand offered information from think tanks from all over the world; but Peruvians were all but absent. (But not entirely because the SPDA, a local think tank specialising in environmental issues was very active).

The opportunity

The COP20 opportunity is fairly obvious. Thousands of experts were coming already -why not organise a conference to take advantage of their knowledge?

But international conferences do not come around every year (although after COP20 Peru has hosted the World Bank meetings and, this year, APEC). Often think tanks have to lobby hard to bring them home and play a role in their organisation.

The effort is worth it, though. Just a few advantages include:

  1. Knowledge capture: even with the opportunities offered by the web accessing knowledge can be expensive. And being able to talk through and discuss complex ideas with their very authors can be costly. But an international conference can bring the world to us. Every expert in one room.
  2. Global exposure at home: panels at conferences are a great way of raising the visibility of a think tank in the global stage. But this requires a budget that few think tanks are willing to fund. And there are logistic challenges, too. Furthermore, international trips are often restricted to more senior staff. But an international conference can offer local researchers the chance to speak to a global audience.
  3. International and domestic credibility: pulling-off the COP20 gave the organisers of other global conference the confidence that Peru could handle the challenge. It also gave Peru access (or at least some Peruvians -not as many as one would have hoped) to global policy debates that it had not been part of before. Locally, it had a similar effect. SPDA’s excellent role during the whole COP20 process won them the Think Tank of the Year Award in 2015. More recently, GRADE and Universidad del Pacifico have hosted a Global Development Network Conference and GRADE hosted the annual ILAIPP Conference (both on education policy). These events have positioned these two organisations at the centre of the issue, internationally and domestically.

The challenge

It is not enough to win the right to host, though. It is important to think about how best produce such an event -not the size of a COP2O but, rather, a GDN or ILAIPP type of conference. Here is some advice based on my participation in both (and our review of the COP20):

  1. Plan in advance: the sooner you start the better, of course. International conferences offer a great opportunity to organise and host official and side events with participants but they will need to know about your plans well in advance. If you book them early you can also advertise them early and ensure that your domestic audiences can attend and benefit from your effort.
  2. Do not do it alone: a think tank’s comparative advantage is not in logistics -don’t do it. Partner with those who have the skills you lack -or hire them.
  3. Be open and welcoming: even to your competitors. I’ve often been to events where other think tanks in the country are absent. The organisers take the view that it is best to keep their guests to themselves rather than share them with their competitors. But this only negatively affects the quality of the event and the experience of the guests.
  4. Think of the user experience: the temptation is always to pack the event (plenaries and panels) with lots of presentations and key-note speakers. But this is an approach that fails to recognise the importance of the participants (in the audience) and the true preferences of the panelists and speakers themselves. This means paying attention to how you use the space and arrange logistics around the event.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate: announce the event, share content form and profiles of the participants (as well as the speakers), web-stream the sessions, put together an event page, a twitter account and play all your cards to make sure that your usual audience benefit form your event. Events are excellent opportunities to generate content, too: you should plan to produce videos of every presentation, interview every panelist and as many participants as you can, take picture, use the event to survey experts, write-up every session and publish them, produce an event report, etc.