(originally posted in Eldis Communities)

In May 2011 Eldis Communities hosted a gender and food security experts’ discussion to feed into a new edition of id21’s Insights. This really successful online event was sponsored by the BRIDGE programme at the Institute of Development Studies. It was a collaboration with IrishAid, convened by Susanne Turrall and I helped to facilitate.

Twenty-eight senior international experts came together for two days from organisations as diverse as: Delhi, Syracuse, Yale and Natal Universities; FAO, ILO, UNESCAP, CARE, IFPRI, CGIAR, Oxfam, ActionAid, Gates Foundation and the private sector. In just two days participants collaborated in posting nearly 100 comments to produce fantastic insights that are contributing towards the forthcoming BRIDGE/id21 gender and food security publication. As one participant said it had been ‘a fascinating discussion’ that had gone way beyond everyone’s expectations.

The excellent participants deserve almost all the credit for the quality and energy of the discussion, but there’s more to be optimistic about if you are considering using Eldis Communities to host private events.

The success of the Gender & Food Security discussion shows that online debates do work – if they are convened properly. That means engaging with participants several weeks before the event to co-create focal themes for discussion, share biographies and calibrate the tone and duration of the event to participants’ needs and capacities.

Three other factors are also important:

  1. Invitations to prospective participants need to market both the public good benefit and the individual benefit of joining in (e.g. influencing, professional development).
  2. Event sponsors need to engage as equal participants (not leaders or lurkers) during the event and be ready to give back to the participants something of value very soon after (e.g. a rough synthesis of discussions the next day)
  3. With good convening beforehand the facilitator should nurture and trust the energy of participants to steer and develop the discussion (i.e.don’t chair and do focus on behind-the-scenes match-making and other pastoral care)

As a facilitator, the benefits of collaborating with Eldis Communities as the host for online events comes down to the quality of their technical support, being able to leverage the profile of Eldis to build trust among participants and the ability to easily link to relevant development policy, practice and research knowledge from the Eldis portal. Why not give it a go?