Moving from conferences to meaningful conversations
All over the world, thousands of workshops, seminars and conferences were convened in 2015 from grassroots all the way to global events like the climate conference held in France. More such events are obviously lined up for 2016. While all these events show the importance of face to face engagements, assessing their impact remains a huge challenge. Filling evaluation forms at the end of a conference or workshop ignores the fact that impact does not happen immediately but after outcomes from the conference or workshop are implemented.
While some people have dismissed workshops as being more about who shouts the loudest, others have found them useful mainly for meeting new people and networking, particularly during tea and lunch breaks. Some participants do not enjoy the formal conference itself but informal networking which tends to be more personal and productive. Unfortunately, during conferences most question and answer sessions are too short for meaningful dialogue. Where facilitators fail to manage their time and spill into lunch or tea breaks, questions from the audience are often hurried and cut short yet these can yield useful insights. It also makes sense for organisers to follow up after a year or two to find out the impact of these events.
Conferences and workshops as feedback mechanisms
To the extent that they often target experts and institutions, most conferences and workshops are not demand-driven. If discussions and deliberations are designed to benefit the majority, they should be built from the bottom. For example, a conference on climate change should be built on mini-dialogues at ward, district and provincial levels where issues and coping strategies are raised. A national conference should then consolidate insights from different contexts. Experts can try to make sense of all emerging issues and consolidate them into policy. Unfortunately most conferences seem to focus on generating reports that are not directly linked to final implementers such as farmers.
Over the past two years, some conferences and workshops have become fundraising platforms, exclusive for those able to pay. Participation has become a question of who can afford rather than who has knowledge. As a result, we have ended up with individuals not representing any community participating on their own behalf. Academics have also dominated the participants as a way of furthering their studies. Development organisations and NGOs have also become the main participants for the sake of writing reports. On the other hand, the mainstream media has participated for the purposes of gathering news from a trapped audience. Most outcomes from the majority of conferences have not been translatable to farmers and other people at the grassroots who are often excluded although they are directly impacted by issues under discussion.
In addition, most workshops and conferences do not generate concrete action plans targeting the under-represented lower classes. Yet generating and implementing action plans would create a pathway for assessing impact. Some conferences produce proceedings whose audiences are limited and cannot be down-scaled to ordinary people. Again, many conference presentations lack evidence and case studies built from the grassroots. These presentations tend to be more of prepared speeches than consolidated facts.
The majority of agricultural and climate change conferences are pitched at policy and international audiences yet there should be issues coming from the grassroots. At the end of conferences, most organisations find it difficult to assess impact because there are often no resources and specific individuals with the responsibility of implement conference outcomes. Usually resources only cover the conference with no budget for implementing outcomes and action plans. As a result it becomes difficult to assess impact after a year or two of the conference being held.
To what extent do conferences and workshops about farmers involve farmers?
Lack of contextualized evidence in thematic areas is often a major issue making it difficult to move from words to action. More critical questions that have remained unanswered include: What informs conference thematic areas? Who is going to implement action plans and what resources are available for implementation?
Translating conferences into meaningful conversations
Conferences should be informed by grassroots events because the main purpose should be bringing together issues and proposed solutions for synchronisation into policy development. Through the conference, pertinent issues should be consolidated and taken back to communities for implementation. If we can have teleconferences, twitter, skype and other modern interfaces with international audiences, why can’t we do the same with our communities who are now digitally-enabled? We have to use the ubiquitous ICT gadgets to stimulate dialogue at community level and farming communities into conferences. A national conference should start with community conversations. The same theme can be sent to communities for discussion ahead of the conference with facilitators engaged to facilitate conversations at grassroots level. Ultimately, the conference becomes more of a platform for consolidation as opposed to just bringing out solutions.
Organisations should utilize ICTs to distil conference outcomes and share outcomes with communities through partnerships with mobile service providers. Rather than sending unsolicited advertisements, mobile service providers can get traction by associating themselves with important agricultural and climate change events through using their bulk subscriber databases. Farmers and other people in rural areas can receive distilled information even as the conference is underway so that they can identify with what is going on.
Improving learning through field days and agriculture shows
If a few farmers continue to host field days and collect all the awards, it means field days are not an effective mechanism for transferring knowledge. Rather than focus on positions 1, 2 and 3, etc. there is need to develop standards which depict a growth pattern as a knowledge transfer mechanism from winners to other farmers. Based on set standards, prizes can be offered as a result of a graduation mechanism. Those who graduate from 3rd to 2nd or 1st should be supported so that they inspire those left behind. This will avoid a situation where some farmers, because they know each other’s capacity and resources, will say, “Obviously I won’t win”. Two years after a field day, we should be able to see an increase in the number of farmers reaching a certain standard and graduating (e.g. the five ton club) into a certain category. This will move the competition from just being a popularity contest.
When different categories of farmers receive different support services it becomes an authentic knowledge based exercise. Field days can then feed into agricultural shows showing champions, middle farmers, much improved, innovators, youth, etc.,. At the moment, some of the farmers who win awards do so because they are supported by seed companies. It is therefore difficult to know whether they win because they are naturally good or it is because of the seed company. Those who struggle on their own and defeat odds should be more rewarded because it shows they dig into themselves. This is a measure of resilience. Farmers who are supported with demonstration plots from seed companies should compete in their own categories. The same should happen with those into organic production.
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