Transformational change or hot air? A personal reflection on the Global Forum

03 July 2015

When giving my opening remarks from the Global Forum podium I was struck by something unusual. Looking out over so many people packed into the Grand Ballroom of New York’s Roosevelt Hotel, I realised that this was not only the biggest and most diverse humanitarian meeting I had ever chaired, it was the biggest and most diverse humanitarian meeting I had ever been to. I knew we had invited 200 different organisations from 54 countries, all of them carefully chosen to represent key constituent groups involved in humanitarian action, ranging from the biggest multi-lateral and bi-lateral donors to the smallest NGOs. But it was another thing to see them all in the same place at the same time. I felt positive and excited - but I also knew that the stakes were high and this meeting had to go well.

Two days later I felt very pleased and a little relieved. Feedback had been extremely positive, and the Forum had trended on twitter, demonstrating an unusually high level of global interest. It had been a rewarding and successful couple of days.

Or had it? A seed of doubt had been planted in my mind by an old colleague who told me he had spoken with another participant about whether this kind of mega-event could ever serve any useful purpose? Their line was that big meetings rarely brought about positive changes, no matter how well planned or executed. Indeed, there were more than a few people demanding transformational change and our Forum, and others like it, would always fail to deliver. Had the Global Forum then only produced a very large quantity of hot air?

Participants at the Global Forum for Humanitarian Action

There is an element of truth in this concern. I have no doubt that this meeting by itself will not bring about transformational change. But is this level of change a realistic goal? Improvements in any complex system tend to happen incrementally and in their own time. I fear there are no silver bullets or magic wands. Instead I see many smaller changes taking place in different parts of the system from the use of big data and crowd sourcing, to new kinds of pit latrines. And lots of small changes and improvements add up to creating big changes to the collective whole.

We know from evaluations that collective action, when it works well, brings about the best results -one of the benefits of a big tent is that it can present and reflect a more complete picture of how humanitarian action works. The wisdom of crowds tells us that large diverse groups have more creative discussions and make better decisions. Over the two days of the Forum, I formed the impression that an array of ideas were beginning to coalesce on a collective mental map that emerges when a diverse group meet face-to-face and engage with each other. The results may not be apparent immediately and there are no big declarations about changing the world. But more quietly and with more stealth I suspect that the final report from the Forum could act as a compass for change and improvement in the humanitarian system in the future. Look out for it and let me know if you spot any hot air leaking out!