Is foreign aid really a bad trip?

March 18, 2005

While some argue that overseas conferences are economically and culturally important to the host countries, critics of such events say that encouraging air travel to far-flung locations is environmentally irresponsible. Harriet Swain investigates

Shortly after the Indian Ocean tsunami, conference venues in the region began to receive cancellations. Organisers of international events were worried that delegates, having seen the devastation on their television screens, would be unwilling to attend, even at a venue miles from the destruction. "People have been cancelling events left, right and centre," says Rob Davidson, course leader for the MA in conference management at Westminster University. "It's a real shame because the countries need these people more than ever."

One reason for the cancellations was concern about safety, but Davidson suspects another. "Conferences held in these places can be quite lavish," he says. "It is very difficult to hold a lavish conference in a place where thousands have perished."

Business travellers have increasingly been expressing concern about the ethics of their activities, Davidson says. This leaves conference organisers with a dilemma. On the one hand, an exotic location is more likely to entice people; on the other, the human rights record of governments in these areas and the environmental effects of large conferences are becoming important issues.

Organisers of academic conferences must be especially aware of this quandary because delegates do not want to find that their attendance runs counter to the issues they are discussing. "A lot of us are talking about sustainability and the fragile environment, and we are the very people flying across the world to take part in these conferences," says Elizabeth Carnegie, lecturer in event and festival management at Napier University.

Her thoughts are echoed by Stuart Parkinson, director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, who says: "Conferences will be sited according to the glamour of the location, with no mention of the fact that they are encouraging people to fly."

International conferences have always been one of the perks of academic life. Globalisation has made such get-togethers more important than ever.

Although almost every subject has an international event, the biggest travellers are academics in science and technology, in particular those in the medical sciences, Davidson says. This is because of the pressure to keep up with the latest thinking in rapidly changing fields.

According to Sally Brown, co-author of Essential Tips for Organising Conferences and Events , science subjects also tend to have more money for travel. "Anything that has drug company money behind it can go where it wants," she says.

Cost is a crucial consideration - Brown refers to the fact that organisers almost invariably choose a venue that delegates can reach via budget airlines.

Financial factors have helped make Eastern Europe a popular conference destination. Salaries in the region are a fraction of those in the UK, so facilities are far cheaper, although Carnegie warns that organisers should take care not to exploit anyone.

But Eastern Europe is also on the itinerary of academic associations because they can look forward to picking up new members from the region.

And there is its novelty value. "It is difficult to get people excited about a conference in Paris or Vienna because everyone has been there," Davidson says.

Whatever the considerations of price and novelty, the choice of venue is often politically motivated. Hosting a conference can be a big prize for a university - the chance to show off its strengths as well as to benefit financially - and vigorous lobbying takes place. Often, one energetic academic can swing an organising committee towards his or her institution.

Organisers are nevertheless keen to be fair. This year, the Staff and Educational Development Conference and the All Ireland Society for Higher Education are holding their joint spring conference in Belfast. The last joint event was in Dublin. In the past, Belfast has been neglected as a venue because of safety fears. Of course, this cannot be ignored - institutions will refuse to insure academics for travel to some destinations. Because events are planned far in advance, the merest hint of trouble can push a destination off the conference map.

This is where ethics also comes into play. Subjects examining issues such as the developing world and sustainability must be scrupulous about where they hold meetings and the impact they have. Carnegie says that any organisation that professes ethical principles or deals with humanitarian issues is unlikely to want to hold a meeting in a country with a poor record on human rights, unless it wants a platform to highlight this.

Carnegie says she recently attended a conference in Turkey originally scheduled to take place in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace that had to relocate to university halls of residence because the venue's management objected to a session on Armenian women.

An exotic location can be fine, she says, if the conference benefits the local economy and is not simply filling the coffers of an international hotel chain. Davidson says many academic associations, which tend to have more financial muscle than other academic groupings, are now laying down conditions about things such as the amount of recycling a conference venue will carry out. Some organisers are even making complicated calculations of the energy they use and making investments in sources of renewable energy to offset that.

For Parkinson, even this is not enough. He says the only answer is more localised conferences, easily accessible by public transport or, ideally, conferences conducted over the net.


Conference call

Is the academic conference a relic of a bygone age?

Phil Bartlett, professor of electrochemistry at Southampton University, believes that email and the internet are transforming academic communication but that there is life in the old conference circuit yet.

"It is certainly easier to communicate by email in terms of research contributions. Southampton is part of the World Wide University Network, which brings together academics from all over the world. We use video conferencing within that, and it works well," Bartlett says.

"But such technologies are nowhere near as efficient and effective a means of communication as a conference. The internet is a great way for progressing an already existing partnership, but it doesn't have the serendipity of a conference.

"If you go to a large conference, one of the delights is seeing the other things that are being presented outside your area. You make surprising connections with people and ideas, and that is why these things are hard to replace."

Chris Bunting

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