06/06/2014 05:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

InterAction's Development Forum: Reflections and Anticipations


It's that time of year again where some of the biggest personalities in international development head to Washington, D.C., for the preeminent conference of international charities and humanitarian professionals known as the InterAction Forum.

The dust has long settled since last year's conference, but past participants are continuing to communicate across competitive barriers, industry channels and implement the best practices and management tips while setting their sites on the 2014 Forum next week.

Forum 2013, hosted by InterAction, an alliance organization of more than 180 NGOs, brought together nearly 900 of the most engaged actors in the international development and humanitarian field for three days in Washington, D.C.

Forum 2014 is slated to be even larger, as it's one of the fastest growing events in the industry. And it is an industry -- full of jobs, innovators and acumen, but it's also where people gather who dare to defy the shallow ubiquity of the phrase "change the world," and who often back it up with real, measurable action.

For many, the Forum represents the pinnacle of industry standard-setting, best-practice training, cooperative networking and innovative communicating with like-minded organizations working internationally in poverty, food security, peace building, education and many other initiatives endemic to international development work.

In a competitive industry where limited income sources and grant-makers are often zealously protected or in hot contestation, InterAction's Forum represents a unique and refreshing coming together; there is organization, formality, and institutionalized standards, or at least an effort for such. It is an event that seeks to unite the various players of a common effort while simultaneously respecting, and celebrating organizational autonomy, and it's the kind of thing those who operate in the change economy need to embrace more frequently.

At the Forum, one can find cooperation and appreciation for shared knowledge and open dialogue. It was encouraging to see that even amid differences of opinions and at times, lackluster panel discussions, competitive and sharp leaders of a nuanced and often petty industry found value in crowding around tables and rolling up their sleeves to learn (for example) about elements of video storytelling, or effective techniques for grassroots advocacy and applicable collaborations with corporate partnerships.

Last year there were over 55 breakaway sessions to attend, which covered the gamut of international NGO and development work including peace building and advocacy.

The closing plenary saw the president of the World Bank, Jim Kim, sit down to a 30-minute conversation with the president of InterAction, Sam Worthington in what turned out to be both entertaining and to Kim's public surprise, lacking of a certain hostile factor, remarking in good humor that the audience was "too polite."

"When I come back, I expect you to be mean and honest, because we need to have a real dialogue and learn to work together for the common goals and challenges we all face," Kim said.

Still, in the spirit of InterAction, a serious conversation was able to occur, while hostility refreshingly remained checked at the door.

Part and parcel to the Forum, InterAction hosted a gala to recognize outstanding leadership and humanitarianism in the field, as well as formally recognizing aid workers who have died in service over the past year. Among those outstanding leaders recognized were former Heiffer International CEO Jo Luck who lifted the crowd with her humorous stories of her career as a tenacious-but-folksy trailblazer and Samer Al Laham, CEO of the Department of Ecumenical Relations and Development for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East.

Al Laham's courageous work in Syria left many inspired and determined to overcome obstacles in their individual work, while continuing to support the humanitarian and peace-building needs of the region. Unfortunately foreshadowing the growing need for humanitarian aid, Syria will likely take a more central role in the conversations at this year's Forum.

The Forum took place as it has in years past in the Crystal City Gateway Marriott in Arlington, Virginia, but crowded hallways and lunch lines and many breakout sessions with standing room only will take next year's Forum to the Convention Center in Washington, D.C. -- a positive sign that even in tough economic times, international humanitarian work continues to move forward, and organizations are taking advantage of InterAction's Forum to collaborate for impact, learn best practices and reconnect with the bigger picture of lifting the world's heaviest of burdens.

But corporate culture does exist even in the most idealistic of organizations. Here also was an air of establishment, a bit of pomp and circumstance, which in a conference setting rife with dozens of CEOs of large organizations might be somewhat expected. But rather than a hotel full of immovable egos, the leaders of InterAction member organizations and other top brass in attendance were passionate individuals interested in achieving positive outcomes and increased, measured impact. And perhaps, most refreshing of all, to interact with other passionate individuals engaged in social change, regardless of title or position.

Of course this speaks to the quality of InterAction's member organizations, and the lengths InterAction itself takes to foster such an environment. So keep your calendars clear June 10-13, 2014 and come to Washington, D.C., where in a sea of cynicism, the most idealistic group of game-changers will meet, to literally change the world.