Tuesday, September 20, 2011

An exercise in stone rolling

As the DSA/ EADI conference discusses new partnerships in development, Rodger Williamson describes the intellectual and practical realities of working with academics and philanthropists.

What difference does it make to someone trying to live on a dollar a day if a few hundred billion dollars get wiped off the New York or Tokyo stock exchanges? Some things work brilliantly, but a lot of things are in a mess. That’s the contradictory reality of our world. Interdependence provides huge opportunities and also makes us more vulnerable when the economy or the social fabric breaks down.

My role in the Bellagio Initiative is to work on organising the Summit in November. How do we stage a global dialogue around the key themes, and still come out with some clear points for action?

I have spent most of my life in NGOs on issues around human rights, development, peace issues, environment, religion and conflict. The last 11 years have been taken up with organising about 80 international affairs conference for the British government. Then I took early retirement and thought I would settle down and research urbanisation and extreme poverty. But no. The chance to work on this project was far too exciting and I got drawn back into conference organising.

It’s like working with two new ‘tribes’. At the risk of caricature, the academics are great ‘problematisers’. They live in a world of ideas and text, and more analysis always needs to be done. The philanthropists, by and large, have been successful in one area of life and like to get things done: ‘Here are the resources, let’s do something.’ And then the academics start to talk about unintended consequences …

In the meantime, we have got some themes knocked into shape and sent some invitations out. The record reply was three minutes – from Nairobi.

Manuel Castells has told us that networks are now the thing. That’s what we are trying to do – to get networks talking. We want to design a process so the foundations and development specialists, the NGOs and the business people, the innovators and social entrepreneurs all have their say. But just this week my headache is how we get 92 people into the remaining 20 of 40 bedrooms. We also face the reality of visas – you can lose or make millions in seconds on the world’s stock exchanges, but to get a visa for someone is serious long-term work.

Still, I marvel when I get a reply from Mexico saying, ‘I can’t make it, but can we send a co-founder of the firm?’  or a positive response from a representative of a slum dwellers’ organisation in India saying, ‘I’ve got some diary commitments to sort out before I can accept.’ A government minister from Bhutan is keen to inform us about their commitment to a happiness index as a better measure of wellbeing than GDP. But he is aware that running his ministry is also a priority.

It’s exciting stuff. The mix is great. Wellbeing is a fantastic diagnostic tool. With another hat on, I am working on wellbeing in the context of the global epidemic (likely to get worse) of depression. Mark Williams and Danny Penman have coined the phrase ‘frantic world’ - and that sums it up. Suddenly everyone is into ‘balance’. Some of it feels more like it’s teetering on the edge.

But we are keen to carry on making the connections. Some of that is an intellectual task, some of it is practical. A social entrepreneur told me that the way to find out what works (I was asking him about fundraising for the depression project) – ‘Push some stones and see which of them rolls’ …

… But I have invitations to sort out and people to track down.

Roger Williamson is an IDS Visiting Research Fellow. This blog was first posted on the Bellagio Initiative blog

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