Impact Study Needed: Do Microfinance Conferences Help the Poor?

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

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It is time for an impact study on the value of so many microfinance conferences. What drives and sustains this cottage industry, rife with redundancy, terrible for the carbon footprint, a wound to a poor NGO’s bottom line, and arguably a poor use of staff time, especially when said staff is in charge of putting the conference together?

Yes, I know the arguments for attending and/or putting on conferences: networking with newbies and golden oldies; sharing interesting, even industry disruptive ideas; exploring or deepening partnerships with other kin; raising the visibility of the industry through the media that finally this time will give microfinance the coverage it deserves.

And ABOVE ALL, may the gods be merciful, connecting us with the funders to insure the NGO’s future in perpetuity—or at least until the end of the calendar year.

All these are valid and honorable reasons to attend—in moderation.

As for me, I am a guilty regular at the parties among other guilty regulars, who I am quite sure may harbor some of the same doubts about the number of annual microfinance extravaganzas on the docket that I do—all conferences claiming to be the one indispensable conference that no one can afford to miss. Like me, they surely reflect on how the bucks spent on air fare, four star hotels, lavish meals, and other extravagances could be used directly to relieve a thousand human beings suffering in poverty somewhere with a direct cash transfer. And instead are being used to cosset us like the poverty royals that we are.

I have two or three ideas why this conference monster has grown exponentially. They run the gamut from the venal to the heart-rending. The venal reason is that in many organizations status is somehow conferred by keynote speeches, appearances on panels, and even report backs on attendance. Come on, we know there is some truth to that.

The heart-rending reason that we attend so many conferences? To overcome the doubts and insecurity that we feel about the value of our work. A warm hug, a photo, and some inspiring words from Muhammad Yunus or Michael Chu (choose your own guru) reassures us that there is meaning to our work. Then we ride on the updraft of this good feeling until the next conference, when we are reassured of our virtue and significance again. Thankfully, we only have to wait a few weeks at most for the next hug.

So what can be done to convince the powers that be to reduce the number of annual conferences from 200 to, say, 100? Well, to start would be to develop a set of metrics to justify or gainsay the value of a multitude of conferences. Right? Everyone in microfinance pines for metrics these days. No?

So how about going for the gold – a randomized control trial (RCT) to study the benefit of attending a conference. The control group would be randomly assigned to stay in their cubicles or continue their work in the field. The conference goers would be evaluated on such criteria as number of new funders obtained, new ideas incorporated in work plans, and ultimately, how they have gone on to change the world.

Such a study would cost some money, sure, but if all of us high rollers in the industry cancelled just one of our yearly conference rendezvous, that would pay for the study in no time. And if the data proved that cancelling or consolidating conferences led to productivity gains and reduced costs, millions and millions would be saved.

Anyway, for all of us travel addicts, no need to worry in the short-term that our lifestyle will get snipped: the RCT will probably take years.

Image credit: Lebazele/Getty Images

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