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Playing the conference game

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-06-23

NEW DELHI - The drinks flowed, the food was good, the lighting was subdued, and much gossip was being traded among the guests, some of whom exchanged glances suggesting post-prandial assignations. It was the classic farewell dinner for participants at an international conference. In fact, at this five-star hotel there were two soirees going on simultaneously on the same top floor commanding a stunning view of this sprawling city, each party marking the self-declared success of different meetings of nongovernmental organizations.

New Delhi, it seems, has become the NGO world's choice conference destination, attracting - by official count - more than 400 international meetings each year. That's not including scores more of confabs sponsored by indigenous nongovernmental organizations, of whom India is said to now have more than 100,000 registered ones. Of course, not all NGOs get to sample the five-star-hotel treatment; only those with foreign patrons do. The less-blessed grassroots organizations must be content with dilapidated government-run hotels, or halls rented out by local schools. It's good business for all concerned, however.

It's also a nice life, this conference circuit on social development and security issues, the favoured topics du jour. Journalists particularly like it because they get access to important people who fly in from all parts of the world to share their hard-won wisdom over - what else? - rounds of libations and spicy savouries. In New Delhi, at least, foreign visitors continue to be treated as sahibs of consequence.

Academics like it because delivering papers requires much less effort than writing articles or books that have to be reviewed and vetted by peers. They also like it because the journalists who attend these meetings often wind up doing fawning pieces on fellow participants in the hope, no doubt, that such clippings would generate precisely the kind of karma that it takes to secure future invitations to overseas meetings. For local journalists, there's more magic in air dashing to, say, Geneva, or Rome, or Paris, or London, not to mention that perennial favourite, New York.

And the organizers like the gabfests, too. The publicity usually helps in generating more foundation support for their agenda, whether it is global peace and security, gender parity, anti-terrorism - a popular subject these days, of course - the environment, or sustainable development. In fact, several well-endowed Western foundations now maintain full-time offices in New Delhi - the Ford and MacArthur Foundations of the United States, and Germany's Friedrich Nauman Stiftung, among others. The idea is to monitor sponsored projects more closely, an effort that requires regular conferences.

The conference circuit has acquired a new patron, the corporate community. Big business has long been the villain at NGO meetings, accused of everything from monsoon failure in India to deforestation to promoting political destabilization. Accepting the old saw that if you can't fight 'em, then join 'em, corporations are now supporting confabs. India's big shipping and power company, Essar, for example, was the main giver for a two-day seminar here on sustainable global security. DHL, the courier service, also chipped in. Not bad for a meeting that resulted in nothing much more than a drab "Delhi Declaration" calling for "constructing peace and deconstructing terrorism."

It would be unkind to entirely dismiss such meetings as useless. They offer opportunities for people of all ideological persuasions to mix, even if socially for the most part. New friendships are made, even if for libidinous purposes. New sponsors are identified, even if by haranguing them until they accede to outrageous financial demands. And novel nomenclatures and topics are fashioned to perpetuate the conference game.

I confess to enjoying the game. I've been at it since the early 1990s, when the United Nations launched a continuum of conferences starting with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. In fact, I produced a daily newspaper at dozens of such meetings all over the world for a dozen years. Most of my writers and editors - who protested the lack of substance at these meetings at the time - are themselves now in the conference industry as NGOs or pricey consultants to them. The game's too enticing, and for those able to leverage connections, it can be lucrative indeed. The U.N. pays some consultants more than US$1,000 a day to attend NGO meetings, not counting business-class airfare, per diems, et cetera.

The game's enjoyable because of the smart, sharp - and usually striking - women and men who attend. It's actually touching to hear their passion for the dispossessed peasants and abused women they represent, even if those victims rarely make it to global conferences as specimens or witnesses. However, there's a risk in becoming inured if such passion gets converted into boilerplate oratory, as it invariably does.

The oratory doesn't have to be particularly insightful or replete with details. At the NGO meetings, legitimacy is conferred by mere presence. At the second of the two New Delhi conferences, for instance, participants came up with the notion of establishing a hotline for the leaders of India and Pakistan in order to avoid a nuclear war. Would this hotline be a phone, a telex, a fax line, or an e-mail system? No one suggested a specific vehicle for communication.

But it didn't matter. That was a mere detail, and confabs deal mostly with the larger, loftier issues. Besides, there's always the next conference for additional discussion. And, of course, I'm going to be there.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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