12/28/2016 11:31 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2017

Massive Development Conferences: Worthwhile or a Massive Drain of Cash?

I'm looking ahead at 2017, thinking about which Massive Development Conferences (MDC) I should attend. I've gone to a few MDCs in the past. They tend to be big budget, hosting tens of thousands of delegates, held in airless, lightless, characterless conference centres featuring a couple of headline acts to draw in the crowds and persuade them to part with their conference fee. I usually return home reeling from the chasm between the MDC and the reality of the issue it is purporting to address. MDCs are now so huge that few cities in the developing world have conference facilities (or an airport hub) large enough to accommodate the influx of earnest delegates, determined to save the world with a week of speed networking, un-conference sessions, social enterprise accelerators and hackathons. So they are held in America and Europe, usually with a tokenistic representation from the "beneficiary group", where we sip bad coffee and talk about ending poverty, improving education, reducing inequality in places thousands of miles away.

Bad coffee and arctic air-conditioning aside, Are MDCs worth it? Or are they just a Massive Drain of Cash?

Headline acts
MDCs live and die by their plenary speakers. The biggest and highest budget MDCs get some great headline acts. Whether they are exciting, unpredictable or enriching is another matter. It is unlikely that anything shocking will be unveiled at a formal session. Curious (and strangely fascinating) to observe is how the presence of headline acts brings out strange behavior in normally the most mild-mannered of developmentistas. A colleague who attended a recent conference in New York described the literal mobbing of one headliner as she stepped off the stage.  And at the Clinton Global Initiative a few years ago I witnessed business cards being thrown at President Clinton from all directions (as if he were likely to pick the card off the floor and think "ah yes, I must get in touch with this fine gentleman who nearly eyeballed me with his business card").

Conversations of substance
Panels are often disappointing. Three of four people convened by the conference organisers, supposedly talking around a common theme but really wanting to promote their own project or organisation. Most panel presentations could just as effectively be released as videos of someone presenting a set of slides and explaining them.  Time for conversations within these sessions is limited and generally disappointingly bland. (But move into the twittersphere during a panel session and you may well find a lively conversation. The online world seems to reduce inhibitions and encourage more outrageous proposals, stronger disagreements and intellectual challenges.) The substantive and important conversations rarely happen in the formal sessions at MDCs.

Network network network
Technology is a tool that can support and enhance, but the digital space is no substitute for actual human contact. Most believe that the real benefit of any conference is the networking and connections. This sentiment has been taken on by MDC organisers who now dedicate immense energy and resource into innovative mechanisms to help us meet each other: online pre-event meet-ups, pitch sessions, speed networking (god help me), iPhone apps where delegates can engage in an unhealthy level of fellow delegate stalking, all alongside the more traditional cocktail receptions. Networking at a MDC is relentless, draining and riddled with power dynamics (too often reflecting the unfortunate "funder versus wanting-to-be-funded" relationship so pervasive in this sector).

If I analyse contacts made at past MDCs using a crude quantitative metric they have been great: I have boxes and boxes of business cards. But I could count on one, maybe two, hands those connections that proved highly and sustainably valuable to my work. Now, a large part is no doubt attributable to my inadequate follow-ups. But depth is often lacking at MDCs. Delegates are encouraged to network frenetically, substantive discussions are difficult and formats favour the gregarious extrovert.

But are they just a Massive Drain of Cash?
Factoring in travel time, attending an MDC would typically take up most of my week, and the weeks of thousands of others. And the number of conferences within the international development sector is overwhelming: it's possible (allegedly) to attend a different mDev conference or event every day of the year. When do events justify the expense? I'd love to see rigorous research on the tangible value of MDCs (compare total MDC expense/outcomes with what could be achieved through Give Directly?).

People working in the same sector do need to get together. The time and space to be educated and meet new people is important and motivating. Conferences give valuable airtime and the temporary oxygen of publicity to certain issues. And their format and style has been reinvigorated in recent years, so full schedules of panel presentations are now rare (although whether speed networking and pitch sessions are more valuable than what came before is debatable...). But these gatherings are becoming an industry; mushrooming in numbers, size and expense with FOMO driving many to attend.

Selective attendance is essential.

"No grand idea was ever born in a conference"
F Scott Fitzgerald