Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Other people's workshops

I've written before about workshops and how I seem them as being a bit of a necessary evil. I'm sure I'm not the only one. However, the last time I talked about this I was on the giving end, so actually knew what I wanted to get out of it and had an opportunity to guide discussions to avoid too much boredom.

Today was one of my first tasters of the "Brussels establishment" workshops at the 20th Brussels Briefing on financing rural development in ACP countries. And I have to say, overall it was a pretty depressing experience.

Firstly, formality requires that everyone give their tuppenceworth of introduction (the EC, the ACP president,...) , even if this doesn't add anything to the discussion. You can't really blame the speakers but then the kinds of topics that seem to get broached in the main session are so full of generalities that it is near-impossible to actually engage in any kind of constructive discussion.

The first part of today went through who is giving how much, and the usual banalities that we all know about the need for change, the need for country ownership of programmes, that this should well coordinated, that the private sector needs to be assisted, the need for more aid, etc etc etc. I'm sure everyone in the room was familiar with this stuff and probably as frustrated as I was that the only real grit came in the questions. Big issues like that of supporting developing countries in building up the capacity to meet required standards for agricultural exports was touched on in one question and that was it. There was a quick response but nothing really getting to the real issues.

The main bullets that came out of it were:
- aid to agriculture basically declined from the 1980s until 2006, since when it has been on the increase again
- the US is increasing its funding to agriculture
- the data is unreliable as different countries class donations in different ways according to the precise activity
- we all recognise that for some kind of green revolution to occur will require a whole host fo reforms on all sides
- the new focus is on private-public partnerships

I am glossing over a bit but that was the real crux.

But it's hard to see what can be done about this. Communication and discussion with all major stakeholders requires these large fora. And each of them feels the need to start again at the beginning, thus giving the impression that things are moving veeeeery slowly if at all. Some answers to questions from the floor showed that each of the speakers had a lot more details on what they had discussed but none of this was conveyed. At all.

How can these things be changed to allow people to get more out of the speakers? Is it just a case of narrowing the focus of the workshops? Expecting people to have done the reading in advance? Coordinating the presentations better? Maybe all of that requires to much pre-organisation for speakers used to preparing the night before. But unless you have that, you end up with a bland affair like the one this morning.

Of course, much depends on the purpose of the meeting, which here was to "sensitize" policy-makers. Maybe that was the problem - I'm maybe not sensitive enough for sensitizations...

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