Letter Regarding Ivory Tower Conferences

This is a letter of feedback I wrote following the Humanitarian Innovation Conference 2015. Many of the sentiments I feel regarding this conference apply to other events and conferences in the field of humanitarian aid and academic research.

The Letter

First of all, thank you so much to you and your team at the Refugee Innovation Project for working so hard to make this an amazing experience for all attending. The organization was flawless, and I was extremely comfortable, well-fed, and at peace staying at Keble College. IMG_3452 IMG_3454

The availability and set-up of the food/coffee was great as well; the break area facilitated conversation and I was able to meet many people and speak with them about their work and presentations. IMG_3430 IMG_3425 IMG_3455

I found myself ‘star-struck’ at first, and was thrilled to be able to network with many people I look up to and whose steps I hope to follow. I hope I can continue to attend this conference as I leave my ‘student’ status behind and join the world of humanitarians working around the world. IMG_3443 IMG_3428

The stimulating conversations and panels offered during the conference challenged me to consider a few ideas for the future of the conference, and I hope you take them as genuine thoughts and not criticism.

1. For example, if we want to “engage” those for whom we work and serve in partnership with our humanitarian aspirations, could we consider joining together for this conference in an area where they are also able to be present? It seems paradoxical to meet in one of the most lofty academic ivory towers in the world to discuss our service and partnership for/with those in some of the worst conditions on the planet. Perhaps this would allow us to truly stimulate discussion around innovation, and it could offer the empowerment we are so quick to mention as our goal.

2. A step in such a direction may also reduce the cost of this conference, which, as a student, I paid out of my own pocket. A student rate was still over $450 not including lodging. This is more than half of my stipend per month as a graduate assistant and twice the cost of the most expensive international conference in my academic field. While I am thrilled to have attended this year at Oxford, I would have loved to put my money where my (and most of ours) humanitarian mouth is by paying a conference fee that considered those for whom I aspire to work: refugees and IDPs and those struggling to make ends meet. Such a high cost will likely not allow me to attend next year, and certainly prohibits many voices from being heard unless they are sponsored by a particular paying group/workplace/organization. You may see where I am going with this. This is the same parallel structure which we discussed throughout the conference which dictates where and how money is spent, as well as which voices are heard.

3. Finally, if we as humanitarians aspire not to be guided or dictated by hierarchy and foster a community of humanitarians, as Professor Betts discussed in his closing remarks, I  challenge the structure of the plenary sessions and their exclusive inclusion of only the most ‘heard’ names in our field. I would challenge the next conference to offer the plenary sessions to other attendees who may have amazing things to say/discuss but are not typically invited to speak. For example, I met the most amazing woman who is a leader of a UNHCR camp in Africa. She has the most amazing thoughts on the situation on the ground that would certainly enhance the scope of our innovative ideas, but she was not heard because she is less well-known. Perhaps some other way of ‘selecting’ plenary panelists that is inclusive could be developed for next year. Even a spontaneous plenary session or round table that was something we did while at the conference and not before, even something like this would be refreshing.

I believe if we are truly facing a paradigm shift in humanitarianism, this means we need space/structure which fosters radical ideas, which may mean making some people in power frustrated – but isn’t this the message we all heard so clearly again and again during the conference? Innovation is a radical request, which may call for a radical environment and change of pace for those in our comfort zones.

Sincerely and Respectfully,

Savannah Spivey


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