Africa must drop endless conferences

National governments, international community, private sector as well as civil society often come up with development initiatives aimed at solving many social problems.

Increasingly, some never get to be implemented. Most of them die in conferences to discuss the issues.
Conferences have become a major industry but unfortunately, they have also become the slaughterhouse for good development initiatives.
This is what Charles Kettering meant when he said, “If you want to kill any idea in the world, get a committee working on it.”

Committees find conferences the best gateway to delay or kill an idea.

Indeed, in their book, Buy-IN: Saving Your Good Idea from Getting Shot Down professors Kotter of Harvard and Whitehead from University of British Columbia, revealed strategies used to frustrate good ideas.

They grouped them in four concepts: Fear mongering, death by delay, confusion and ridicule (character assassination).
In most cases, these concepts emerge at conferences and more often than not confuse participants and create doubt.


The best antidote for this problem is strong leadership (champions who understand purpose) that helps people stay on course; a strategy of informing what is expected to the masses and cascading national objectives to sub-national regions, educating the people about their role in achieving the objectives and communicating the outcomes of their performance towards meeting the objectives.

These important steps rarely come out conferences.

When the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were adopted in September 2000, there was much hope and great expectation that the world was united in improving the lives of lowly people.

But debate around MDGs was confined to conferences. The MDGs were never cascaded to individuals and sold as personal responsibilities.
Take education, for example. Chiefs should have been sensitised to ensure that every child, especially girls, go to school.

As it stands today, some countries, including Kenya, have unacceptably high number of girls out of school. Some are married off at ages as low as 12 years.

Before the adoption of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, a UN assessment report concluded that MDGs had been a success.

No harmonisation

In particular, the report noted, among others, that extreme poverty had declined by more than half; a proportion of undernourished people in the developing regions had fallen by almost half; primary school enrolment rate in the developing regions had reached 91 per cent, and many more girls were in school compared to 15 years ago; remarkable gains achieved in the fight against HIV/Aids, malaria and TB.

These were averages. Let us see how other projects fair.

Around 2005, many African countries came up with ambitious visions. Kenya’s Vision 2030 was to propel the country into a high middle-income country.

Some of the objectives are similar to the UN goals. But these initiatives were dealt with in silos and in separate conferences.

They are never harmonised and simplified for the target population to understand. The poor, for example, must understand ending poverty. They must be able to tell whether there is progress or not.

As it is, they are statistical objects and voting machines whose interests are served best through political handouts. Surely, we must change this.
The MDGs transformation referred to in the UN reports, disguised the fact that there was limited change in Africa.

Even the UN knows that Africa must go beyond conferences, roll sleeves and implement SDGs in earnest.

What we should do now is to develop the measurements, inform sub-national regions of where we are, where we want to be by 2030, how we get there and who should be championing issues at all levels.

Unnecessary conferencing
Our weakest link to development is often the excuse of finance yet we are able to fund conferences in far-flung places like Qatar to discuss local issues.
Members of the County Assembly (MCAs) have conferenced in Chenai, India with the sole agenda of how to economically transform their county.

When it comes to the implementation of SDGs, the same leaders would ask if donors would fund a public sensitisation exercise.

From the establishment we have, from the MPs, County Administration to County Commissioners, it is obvious that we have sufficient resources required to focus on economic development.

These are the structures and resources needed to cascade international obligations to national and then to sub-national level. Let’s stop unnecessary conferencing and focus on development.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s School of Business.