Of Conferences

Let me share at the outset, that I have always been somewhat wary, and on occasions even suspicious about conferences. And this, after attending innumerable conferences all over the world, over a 30 years plus (and going strong!) work-life experience. Conferences on CSR / sustainability, corporate governance, HR, DFI, exports promotion, microfinance, women empowerment, entrepreneurship and even several on wildlife conservation, my secret calling!

I must record that a majority of these events, and I am not going to give even an indicative percentage here, and leave it at ‘majority’, were in my assessment little beyond PR exercises. Organized to demonstrate commitment to stakeholders, or garner donor support, or in some cases, simply to make money! This last genre is unfortunately fairly prevalent in my own country, with some ‘Awards’ or the other tied in with the conference to further entice the (false) glory seeking corporate entity. One conference-cum-Awards organizer must get an award himself for marketing, for he succeeded in convincing over 55 companies to pay for the award in terms of either sponsorship or advertising in the conference brochure or paying an award application ‘processing’ fee, and giving out the same award to all!

The sad irony in this particular instance was that a large number of highly reputable national and multinational companies were also amongst the 55 ‘victims’. They surely did not need this totally non-credible green washing.

Memory fortunately also reminds me of some really great, even superlative conferences. Two, relating to wildlife conservation were attended by me in yesteryears in Kaohsiung, Taiwan and Penang, Malaysia. I credit the participants for the success of these 2 conferences. But perhaps wildlife people are really a very dedicated lot, who would rather spend the same time in the field than attend a conference, if they seriously did not believe that the conference will add value to their work in one way or another.

Similar are people in the tourism and hospitality trade. The conferences in this industry have to be the most vibrant and glamorous of all. Held in exotic locations to start with (the top 2 tourism conferences this writer has attended were in Bali, Indonesia and Porto Azul in the Philippines), tourism industry conferences and related events are extremely productive for all stakeholders. I am sure there must be a study somewhere with statistics of the business that is generated in a top tourism meeting event.

What about CSR conferences? Well, to my experience, these vary from the purely commercial initiatives by an enterprising individual or organization, to the real value-addition meetings of committed professionals. The Asian Forum on Corporate Social Responsibility (AFCSR), now in its 10th year, is a fine example of the latter variety. TBL has been a media partner of AFCSR for the past 2 years and is again a partner this year. The first AFCSR conference I attended was a year before TBL became a media partner. if anything, that participation convinced us to give depth to our relationship with AFCSR and go for the media partnership. The rationale was simple – TBL and AFCSR share a common vision and both believe in partnerships. Indeed partnerships and cooperation is what AFCSR promotes in essence; and today, all in the CSR space acknowledge that effective, mutually trusting partnerships between high-repute organizations is the way to optimize the creation of shared value – the fast emerging, universally accepted goal of CSR.

Partnerships between the 3 principal game-changers, so to speak, of our world today is what AFCSR and TBL seek to promote. These 3 primary drivers of socio-economic uplift and sustainable growth being the government, the corporate sector and the NGOs.

AFCSR to my experience has been a huge learning, every time. No matter what your level of CSR expertise is; there will still be value addition – even if it is just one profound thought-starter that you pick up in one of the plenary sessions, or in a otherwise light conversation with a CSR peer during a networking session.

Not taking anything away from the organizers of AFCSR, I have to say that the success of AFCSR is at the end of the day perhaps mainly due to the intensity of commitment of the participants – and these include the speakers and moderators too. For they are well aware that their audience is not the general public, even not the educated intelligentsia, but people who are working professionally in the CSR space and hence who need original thought to process.

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Author Information

Zohare Ali Shariff is CEO of Asiatic Public Relations Network Ltd. & Editor-in-Chief of tbl. A graduate of the London School of Economics, he is a published author and winner of National Book Foundation wards. He is based in Karachi.

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