21. November 2014

Interactivity in Geneva

One of the things that strike most people when coming to Geneva for the first time is the sheer endless number of international organisations. Most of them are packed into the quarters between Appia, Paquis and Servette and thus located within walking distance to each other. This has obvious advantages. Some canteens, for example, are clearly better than others and you are not always lucky enough to sit in the right spot.

But, as a matter of fact, the geographical concentration of offices also facilitates exchange in professional settings. This exchange is crucial as many of the organisations have overlapping portfolios and efficient spending requires a substantial coordination effort with relevant stakeholders. Thus, as an employee of one of those organisations you won’t have a hard time in finding opportunities to liaise externally on a daily basis. Roundtables, consultations, expert meetings, conferences, working dinners and brown-bag lunches often not only serve your appetite but also your personal and professional network. This turns them into quite fruitful endeavours – no doubts here.

But they can also make you wonder. The last one I attended (part-time, though) was a three-day conference related to current debates about financial inclusion. The standard structure here usually consists of a panel with several panellists, each of them armed with a PowerPoint presentation, followed by a discussion. This would be repeated several times and eventually concluded by someone high-level (who only attended part-time, too). The above mentioned meeting, however, did not feature “discussions”. Instead you would find “interactive debates” appear on the agenda. I was immediately struck by the difference in wording. It seemed as if the organisers had felt the need to reiterate that discussions have per definition a dialogic nature. From my short experience in Geneva I already could tell why this might have been the case (“discussions” tend to be quite formalised). Thus, this somehow made me look forward to a thematic debate with actively engaged experts and practitioners.

I simply had to be disappointed. The peak of interactivity during the session was a fight between an Indian and a Bangladeshi financial expert over the question whether Basel III regulations apply to banks which do not operate outside their national boundaries. After this technical issue could not be solved to everyone’s satisfaction silence set in again. Questions about the actual content of the presentations? A debate about the pressing issues concerning financial inclusion on a global scale? Far from it.

Whenever I share these observations with people who are much longer in the “business” than I am, resignation is the most common reaction. Sometimes, I am told, a consultation has to be held for “other reasons”. Sometimes they take place out of some kind of tradition or because donated money has to be spend. Occasionally consultations are organised in order to maintain a network. This makes them an essential part of inter-agency politics – but in a negative sense as they are only designed to conserve processes rather than create ideas. These days I heard someone saying collectively planned time waste was part of everybody’s job description. I partially agree. It’s not that they are totally useless (see above) but many of the consultations and conferences I have experienced simply do not live up to what they promise – regardless of their budget and buffet. This can be frustrating.

I am a bit unsure: maybe my expectations are too high; maybe I haven’t been here long enough. Furthermore, I am also aware of the fact that more things happen outside of rather than during those conferences and meetings and that one of their main benefits is to connect people on the long run. Nevertheless, I seriously feel something needs to be done about the way international players interact here in Geneva. The scene clearly lacks informally organised open spaces where employees have the opportunity to exchange in a straightforward fashion. You would have an “open working group” here and there but this by far not the gold standard. And they do not make up for the absence of a decent debate culture so many people are annoyed with.

Creating those opportunities to interact would both serve interdisciplinary thinking and thus better policy/project outcomes as well as give people the chance to effectively break out of their daily routines between mail floods and deadlines. Much of the international staff working here has fascinating knowledge and experiences you only need to tap into. What would be easier than to just regularly cross the street to the neighbouring organisation and have a little brainstorm with colleagues?

Interestingly, Geneva’s citizens are already a step ahead. Once a year, they celebrate “la fête des voisins”. Then dozens of mini-parties pop up all over the town with the aim of maintaining exchange and good relations within the neighbourhood – self-driven and spontaneously.