Reflections on global health conferences after Global Health Exchange 2018

February 14, 2019
Viveka Guzman, Key Correspondent for the Irish Forum for Global Health

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in the Global Health Exchange conference (GHE) organised by the Irish Forum for Global Health in Dublin, 6-7th November 2018. Soon after leaving the meeting I shared with my beloved global health tribe, I found myself trying to speak of my experiences and reflections from the conference with people who had not attended. Even after my ramblings about the great speakers and their incredible achievements benefiting many, I realised a good proportion of the non-conference people I spoke with still believed that we, conference aficionados, had a secret agenda to drink tons of free coffee, pat each other on the back about our great job, have very inspiring talks about ‘what is needed’ or ‘what we should do’, and then go back to our daily life without making any significant changes. It’s not the first time I’ve come across negative perceptions surrounding conferences. I have to admit that I have myself been haunted by questions surrounding how we can use the conference momentum to positively impact our societies and create meaningful change. In the next few paragraphs I will make an attempt to disentangle three of the main negative beliefs surrounding conferences. I’ll provide a brief definition of the issue at hand and use GHE to draw some lessons for future global health conferences.

First, the ‘preaching to the choir paradigm’. Conferences tend to attract the same type of audience over and over again, with important messages from the conference rarely transcending conference boundaries.

It’s a tough challenge attracting to a conference individuals who have no awareness or previous knowledge on a particular topic. Our field is blessed by its multidisciplinary nature that makes it easier to appeal to many and attract wide audiences, and organisers should use this power wisely and try to engage diverse stakeholders and contexts. I’ve been pleasantly impressed by the GHE’s attempt to reach out to people who didn’t attend the conference by making a livestream available, constantly sharing information in social media, and creating a team of students and young professionals to write about the conference from their own point of view. I think another great idea I learnt from the Irish Forum for Global Health is that if people attend a conference they should share their main insights and take-home messages with those who did not get to attend.

Second, the ‘shallow conference attendees’. Those who take great notes, get very inspired, and quickly get back to work forgetting most of what happened.

I think it’s very comfortable and easy to become this kind of person, and because it’s a topic that particularly haunts me I’ve already written an article with suggestions on how to escape it, which you can find here.

I believe this issue can be linked to the notion of conferences as spaces where a ‘group of people is patting their backs for their great jobs’. Once again the multidisciplinary nature of global health really saves the day on this one. Taking the GHE as an example, as we came from so many different walks in life with a variety of experiences, it was always possible to find people raising hands at the end of a presentation and asking the difficult questions. An active and involved audience is as important as the speakers’ knowledge. Another way the GHE encouraged multiple points of view was bringing together different generations of ‘global healthers’ and giving them space to engage with each other. It was openly acknowledged that many of most useful conference events come from outside the rooms where people meet and get to talk about their own experiences, with a coffee in hand.

So, lastly, the conferences as a spot for free coffee.

Free coffee is great! Who doesn’t like free coffee? I have to admit I’m systematically biased, so that disqualifies me from bringing up reasonable arguments on this point. However, taking advantage of the fact that this negative belief has taken us to the food and beverage section of the conference I would like to mention an additional conference belief. I consider the following point is very important as there is an expectation that conferences are places where to incentivize innovation and lead by example. As mentioned by Matt Robinson on his presentation about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in relation to climate change ‘we can’t put all our eggs in the meat and milk baskets’. We need to put in practice resilient food practices. For me, this means moving away from catering meat products, supporting local food producers and making active efforts to reduce food waste.  I’m really excited to see what GHE brings to the table next year!


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