Consumers Unite: you have nothing to lose but your inhibitions


I  made a shame-faced confession at last month’s Consumers International World Congress in balmy Brasilia – in front of seven hundred consumer activists from round the world, the admission that I had never heard of their organisation.  But that state of ignorance isn’t going to last much longer I suspect. For under the dynamic leadership of its new Director General, Amanda Long, this hitherto somewhat retiring organisation is leaping into the global limelight. Look out for Consumers International!

The CI Congress in Brasilia was the first conference I’ve moderated where Panel Discussions were banished in favour of  Interactive Discussions. So why did ditching the word ‘panel’ for ‘interactive’ matter? Well, what happened was that all the plenary sessions positively encouraged contributions from the delegates – not just questions but comments too – rather than the token few minutes reserved for questions from the floor at most conferences. This really made a difference to the way delegates took ownership of the discussions and turned each plenary session into a giant conversation in the airy plenary hall. Indeed my confession popped out during an especially free-flowing  and energetic plenary  on how consumers associations can work together to have more impact globally. This is a key existential question for consumers associations at a time when their traditional MO is under threat from  web-based peer-exchange platforms. During the course of the next two days there was a palpable shift – or so it seemed to me – in favour of more collaborative engagement at an international level, as championed by Marta Tellado from the US, Bart Combee from the Netherlands, Alan Kirkland from Australia and so many other voices from the floor. Was this shift in thinking linked to the interactive, democratic style of the Congress? I’d like to think so.

Especially striking was the emphatic endorsement by the Congress of  two pretty radical moves by CI into the arena of international campaigning. The first, the launch of a ‘People’s Charter for the Internet’ aims to harness the lobbying power of several hundred consumer associations to ensure that the promise of the internet is not exploited by giant multinationals . (See the CI blog for  more: The second campaign came as a complete surprise to everyone at the Congress, an ambitious effort spearheaded by CI to get the three largest fast food chains McDonalds. Subway and KFC to stop the use of antibiotics in their meat and chicken. Again the aim is to use the lobbying power of hundreds of consumers associations round the world to pressure these giant restaurant multinationals to respond to an issue of huge international concern.

So I’ll end by saying good luck to CI and its efforts to create a more powerful voice for consumers round the world. After all, rich or poor, we’re all consumers one way or the other.


New Paradigms for Peacebuilding

When we survey the wreckage of struggling states across large swathes of the world, it is hard  to be otimistic about the fruits of ‘Peacebuilding’. Which begs the question: is it time for another approach with a  more holistic focus? Not just big bucks high level initiatives to strengthen security forces or the justice system, but less glamorous, from the ground-up initiatives like nurseries, schools, community projects…?

That was the theme of a fascinating Symposium jointly hosted by UNICEF and the Club de Madrid which I was invited to moderate at in Brussels last month. A day of wide-ranging debate was loosely divided into three parts: Do we need fresh thinking and fresh initiatives in the Peacebuilding space? What works and what doesn’t – what does the evidence show? And finally, how to promote the idea that social services have an integral role to place in promoting stable, peaceful societies? The discussion often moved like quick-silver, hard to pin down, and therefore all the more important to do just that!

So I’m writing this blog to capture my takeaways from the Symposium and invite those who attended to contribute your ideas to the comments section on the blog, so that UNICEF and the Club de Madrid can  build a community of committed participants and create an agenda for further action. And of course anyone else who’d like to join in the discussion would be most welcome to do so.

Here goes,  my five top takeaways from the Brussels Symposium were:

  • HE Maker MWANGU FAMBA,  Minister for Education for DRC, describing schools as ‘sacred spaces’ even in the most war-ravaged areas of his vast country, and his plea for UNICEF to ‘sell Education like Coca Cola’.
  • Saji Prelis, from Search for Common Ground arguing that it isn’t enough to provide conflict-sensitive education programmes, they have to made sexy too, to lure teenagers away from the dark attraction of guns and gangs (I am paraphrasing a bit here, Saji!)
  • The delightful Mari Malek’s (@DJStiletto) personal testimony about how her mother’s determination to give her girls a decent education propelled them from the chaos of South Sudan towards an educational lifeline in the US. (If only we could all speak as eloquently as Mari.)
  • Former President of Kyrgyzstan, HE Madame Roza Isakovna Otunbayeva’s passionate advocacy that nurseries don’t just help children but also heal communities  by bringing mothers together across the ethnic divide. In the case of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbeks and Kyrgyzs women found a safe space to meet and understand each other’s lives.
  • And finally Olav Seim, from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, electrified the Symposium with his announcement that the Norwegian government had pledged to double its investment in education, as a means to build more stable societies less likely to slide back into conflict.

Those are my five takeaways – possibly idiosyncratic! – what were your takeaways ? Please add your comments below, and let us know what you think the next steps should be.


UNICEF’s Learning for Peace Website:

Club de Madrid’s Shared Society project:





An Extreme Dialogue in Oslo

Musing on some of the very many events that I have moderated at, one especially springs to mind – the ‘Extreme Dialogue on Climate Extremes’, held at the University of Oslo a couple of summers ago. So I was delighted when a short video of that memorable day popped into my mailbox this week. Here it is, please take a look –

We didn’t have a particularly starry cast of CEOs or government ministers or even royalty (as at my last moderating job in Norway, for ONS 2014.) So what was it that made this event, the aptly named, ‘Extreme Dialogue’ so memorable?

Well for one, it was the ‘extreme informality’ of what was essentially an extremely serious discussion at a high level university conference. The first thing you’ll notice, when you look at the video, is how colourful the stage is, not at all like an academic conference. We took a drab university lecture theatre and draped it with exotic Indian saris, Persian rugs, and authentic Oslo wild flowers from the nearby fields. The idea was, or at least the hope was,  that the ‘homey’ set would put the participants at their ease…and it worked.  Just take a look at the way everyone ended up sitting on the floor by the end of the discussion!

Then it was a truly international, and multi-disciplinary discussion which went far beyond academia. The testimony was riveting. Here are the participants: Environmentalist, poet and architect Nnimmo Bassey from Nigeria; Social scientist Susanne Moser from Stanford University; Madeleen Helmer from the Netherlands Red Cross; Haavard Stensvand, Head of Emergency Planning for a Norwegian County, from Pakistan’s University of Lahore, Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, whose research evaluates community-based approaches to disaster risk reduction; business supremo Idar Kreuze, MD of Finance Norway; plus Psychologist Cathrine Mostue; and  finally Norway’s then deputy foreign minister, the extremely youthful Arvinn Gadgil (who also ended up sitting on the floor!)

I’ll leave you with one last thought, did you notice the music on the video? The instrument it was played on is ‘The Hang’ (a kind of lyrical drum) and the performer, a hugely talented young musician called Ravid Goldschmidt, who was himself an integral part of the ‘Extreme Dialogue’. When the mood became heavy, Ravid lightened it; when we were brain-storming, he provided musical inspiration; when we needed a call for action; his ‘Hang’ was the urgent voice that brought the Dialogue to a close. Now when did you last go to a heavyweight discussion like that? Or for that matter, to an ‘Extreme Dialogue?’

For a sneek peek at Ravid’s music-making, visit:



A lovely Storify way to use Twitter

I often find when moderating a big event or panel discussion that the day goes by in a whirl and when I look back on who said what and when, the details usually escape me. So what a pleasure it was to receive a wonderfully varied timeline  on Storify of  the ‘Small Farmer=Big Business’ debate that I moderated at the IFAD Governing Council in Rome. To my surprise, by gathering together many different Tweets from people in the audience and those watching on-line,  Storify  really captured the flavour of the discussion. Please take the time to take a look at the link: .

The Twitter-sphere  highlighted some great quotes from the CEO of Unilever, Paul Polman, whose passionate embrace of small farmers and their importance to Unilever’s sustainability pledges rocked the audience. Another star was Andrew Rugasira(@andrewrugasira), a dynamic Ugandan entrepreneur whose ‘Good African Coffee’ brand connects thousands of small coffee growers with consumers in Europe and whose ‘trade not aid’ motto also went down a storm with the IFAD members.

Personally I was pleased to spot Tim Ledwith’s tweet (@tledwith) about panellist Laksmi Prasvita from PISAgro of Indonesia. Here it is:  “In Indonesia small-scale partnerships between small farmers & private sector do work. The challenge is scaling up.” If it hadn’t been for Storify, that’s the kind of insightful comment that might have slipped between the cobwebs of my mind. So thank you Tim and Laksmi.

Or this one from Neil Sorensen (@NeilSorensen) about Bill Vorley, another panellist:  “Bill Vorley from @landcoalition member @IIED on panel says value chains weed out smaller and poorer suppliers.”  A crucial point about how the smallest/most marginal farmers are least likely to benefit from value chain investments by big corporates.

All in all, it was interesting to see Twitter used not just to generate questions for the panellists but also to distil the essence of the day. Well done to IFAD’s social media team(@IFADnews)  for being so creative. I do sometimes wonder, what’s the point of  Twitter? Storify gave me one fewer reason to doubt.

Here’s the video of my interview with Unilever CEO Polman:




Build Africa – and the world will come

I’m still rubbing my eyes in disbelief at an extraordinary event last week – the Build Africa Forum – held in Congo Brazzaville. Not only was the location out of the ordinary – who goes to Brazzaville as part of their day job? – but the cast of characters just blew me away. The Forum was the brainchild of events supremo, Richard Attias,  held under the aegis of the President of the Republic of Congo himself, His Excellency Denis Sassou N’Guesso. What’s more the invitation list of top notch business leaders, economists and senior government ministers was jaw-dropping. And they didn’t just turn up for an hour or two and then disappear. Brazzaville’s Palais de Congres was humming with the creme de la creme for a full two days. Networking, as I’d never seen it before.  (more…)


Physics Rules the World

Physics rules the world, or if not physics, then physicists! My conclusion after living, breathing and chewing on physics for several days at the CERN campus outside Geneva. It was in the run-up to European Researchers Night, a celebration of the work of scientists at 300 different venues across Europe. CERN’s contribution was a show called ‘Origins 2013′ which peered into the origins of the universe via two breakthrough pieces of European research – the Planck satellite launched by the European Space Agency and of course, the discovery of the Higgs Boson at CERN. I was fulIl of trepidation about the prospect of hosting a live show about physics, and nothing but physics, for a duration of two and a half hour, but the result was a blast! (more…)


Stage craft vs content

Barcelona in February is gorgeous – mild, bright, and uplifting. So thank you Gartner for affording me four days in Barcelona last week at the EMEA  Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit, where I played a couple of different roles. First, encouraging people to network via a series of  ‘Ideas Exchanges’, a new concept which really took off. Plus, as a stage craft coach, helping Gartner’s  BI gurus polish up their big keynote presentation to the conference.

And here’s what I concluded after two days of  presentations prep work with the delightful Gartner guys. That it’s the content that counts as much – if not more – than the star dust. (Though they may not agree with me.) We ended up spending the whole of the  first day putting  stage craft on hold. What do I mean by that? The breathing exercises, body work, gestures, blocking – all the actorly stuff – was put on hold. Instead we dived deep into the content.  Why are we saying this? Does it make sense? Is it convincing? How do we make a better case? Isn’t that graph simply boring, let’s ditch it…and so on.

All of which left just a breathless final day to sprinkle some performance ‘star dust’ over my three presenters. I say ‘my’ because by the end of two days it felt like James, Ian and Ted were my children, about to appear in the school play. And the funny thing is that while watching them from the back of Barcelona’s cavernous Palacio de Congresos, I felt as proud of them as if they were my own kids. So thank you guys for keeping a straight face while singing your scales during warm-up. It was worth it.

But I digress. Here’s the thing, when prepping for a big presentation where do you put the emphasis – on content or stage craft?







Tweet reporting

Moderating at a big sustainability conference last week I discovered a new kind of journalist, the ‘Tweet Reporter.’ In this case she came in the highly efficient and enthusiastic form of Dutch journalist, Gerdie Schreuders (@TweetReporting).  Her  role was to tweet highlights, bon mots, and unexpected boo-boos to the Twittersphere, and draw questions into the hall for further discussion. What a boon she was for me. With Gerdie concentrating on Twitter, I was free to focus on the content of the presentations –  dauntingly high-level academic research focussing on how to reduce the carbon footprint of the transport sector – and on keeping the audience engaged with the debate and question/answer sessions that followed.  In no time at all, #EeacRli (not the most catchy of hash tags!) had taken off …

As for the content proper, I needed all my wits about me to moderate a whole day of debates on ‘Keep Moving Towards Sustainable Transport’. The conference got cracking with an opener from the EU’s blunt-speaking Sustainability Commissioner, @janezpotocnikEU: ‘I don’t know a politician who got re-elected because he had a long term vision.’

Surprisingly then, given the abysmal sustainability record of the transport sector over the last couple of decades, the overall mood of the speakers was pretty positive. Partly because our love affair with the car seems to have peaked in the rich world, partly because technological alternatives – whether electric cars or hydrogen-fuelled cars – look like being realistic options at long last, fingers crossed. Why there are even plans to trial a hydrogen-fuelled car on the Isle of Wight, as part of its Ecoisland ambitions to lead the UK’s sustainability agenda. And that was the other positive glimmer on the horizon – impatient moves by what one speaker, Maarten Hajer (@maartenhajer),  called ‘the energetic society’ to just get on and make things happen in the face of government inertia/impotence the world over. So here’s to ecoislands wherever they may be … and to Tweet Reporters.

For more on Keeping Moving Towards Sustainabile Transport:

For more on the Isle of Wight’s Ecoisland movement:







My Takeaways from Planet under Pressure

Looking back on Planet under Pressure I can’t help feeling a touch dazed. What an extraordinary event to have moderated at, with the next Earth Summit, Rio +20 looming on the horizon. The sheer scale of the conference was mind-boggling, as three thousand people – scientists, NGOs, policy makers, a sprinkling of business folk and about a hundred journalists – descended on London’s Excel Centre from the four corners of the world. Yet somehow the level of debate was mostly high, the boiled-down, ten minute-long presentations were the most memorable I’ve encountered at many a conference, and the electronic questions, despite my initial misgivings, were a triumph… (more…)


Prepping for Planet Under Pressure

Three days to go before the start of Planet Under Pressure 2012 and I feel like a school kid swotting for exams. It is such a big conference in every sense of the world –  with a huge number of attendees,  two thousand seven hundred at the last count, a vast intellectual reach, and seriously impressive speakers including a number of government ministers. My usual conference prepping is a walk in the park compared with the sheer range of articles I’ll be desperately trying to digest over the next few days. So imagine my relief when I discovered that the Planet Under Pressure organisers have prepared a series of policy briefings for last-minute merchants like myself – . Nine briefings in all on a range of topics from Biodiversity to Transforming governance and institutions – at no more than eight pages, they’re short, snappily written and a godsend.

So on the one hand I’m feeling like an under-prepared student, on the other like a groupie at a rock concert: over two and a half thousand people gathered together at London’s Excel centre and who knows how many thousands joining us round the world via live web-streaming. That’s jaw-dropping.  How to make the event truly interactive when the audience will be so massive and far-flung? My role as conference moderator is to help audience members, wherever they may be, to question, perhaps even grill, our eminent panelists. Technology we hope will ride to the rescue by way of social media and a much battered iPad. The idea is that I’ll be gathering questions on the iPad via Twitter, sms/text messages and webstreaming,  instead of running around the auditorium with a mic in my hand to elicit audience participation. Will the technology work? Will the audience take up the challenge and tweet/text/webstream their questions? I must admit to feeling a few butterflies. Let’s hope Steve Jobs, the godfather of the iPad is looking down on us all next week with a benign smile.