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OPINION: Have workshops outlived their utility?

Katharine Vincent and Tracy Cull of Kulima Integrated Development Solutions, together with Jami Dixon, Andy Dougill and Lindsay Stringer of University of Leeds, reflect on their experiences of organising workshops to discuss research priorities in climate change and development.

Workshops have become standard practices for both social science research and development practice and we have recently organised workshops for CDKN to establish research priorities in climate change and development. Whenever a new project is being designed, the fact that there will be (at least) one workshop in the process is almost a given. They are the ultimate method for the paradigm in which we currently work – where stakeholder participation is key, both to ensure robustness of research findings and buy-in and ownership of development practices.

Workshops have many benefits. They provide the opportunity to raise awareness of issues, observe how people with different interests view certain phenomena and, perhaps most crucially, gain collectively-agreed opinions and inputs. Theoretically the method is sound – but practically we are observing increasing flaws. For that reason, we believe that workshops have outlived their use.

With so many research institutions and development partners working in developing countries, and the popularity of workshops in research and practice, a real “workshop culture” has emerged in many countries. This means that government and non-government actors are spending less time at their desks and more time in conference venues and hotel meeting rooms.

For various reasons – possibly to compensate for this, or to show appreciation for participation, some donors began the practice of making available allowances to facilitate attendance. Whilst the motives for such practice was, undoubtedly, benevolent, it has created dangerous precedents in many countries that are beginning to seriously undermine the value of the workshop method.

Paying reasonable sums to reduce any additional costs incurred by the participants has evolved into a situation where travel allowances and per diem payments have become significant enough to be viewed as a means of bolstering salaries.   This means that attending workshops becomes a job perk, with many bosses feeling obliged to rotate the opportunities among their staff. Getting the most appropriate people in the room is thus a challenge; and since participants might be attending in order to earn additional money, not because they are interested in or committed to the topic of discussion, the quality of the workshop outputs is impeded. When this is considered in conjunction with the exponential increase in the number of workshops taking place, it almost becomes a marketplace where invitees will not commit to attending one event in case another invitation with higher benefits comes along.

We believe that workshops have outlived their utility in the research and development context. In the worst case, we have experienced cases where events have had to be cancelled or curtailed due to non- or poor attendance. In the best case, we have received evaluation forms that have elicited responses such as “because I was invited” to the question “why were you interested to attend this workshop?” – as opposed to “because I am interested in this topic” or “because this is relevant to my job role and I feel I have something to gain and contribute”. If ambivalence is the motivation, we can no longer assume that workshops have their former utility, and we need to rather consider alternative methods to achieve our goals.

Although it does not have the benefit of allowing discussion and collective conclusions, we have found that individual meetings with our targeted participants often yield more relevant information, particularly as part of social science research. As with workshops, the process of identifying the most appropriate person with whom to speak can involve a trail of meetings based on snowball sampling – but having the guaranteed ear of the right person at the end can elicit better data. In some cases, group interviews with a number of selected participants from one department, ministry or NGO can also be useful: they are more time-efficient in that they can take place in the stakeholders’ office and are usually much shorter in duration as targeted themes can be explored.

Whilst individual and groups interviews are a feasible alternative from a research perspective, obtaining buy-in for development practices – and in particular inputs into the design of a particular project or programme – is still better achieved from a multi-stakeholder forum where different opinions can be openly expressed and a collective way forward reached by consensus. In these cases, identifying the existence of appropriate national ongoing fora can reduce workshop fatigue and the emerging problems associated with them.

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