The global development event of the year?

By Joy Portella, President, Minerva Strategies —

I attended DevEx World in Washington, DC this week, a conference with not-so-humbly billed itself “the global development event of the year.” That’s a bold claim, and the jury’s still out in my mind.

For sure, DevEx World was radically different from other conferences of the global development sector that I’ve attended. Organized by the media platform DevEx, it very intentionally gave off the “Beltway meets Silicon Valley” vibe.

But at times it felt more like “Beltway meets the popular HBO series Silicon Valley” the hilarious spoof of California’s innovation hub. There was something about the ubiquitous headsets, TED Talk pacing, club-esque music during speaker switches, and prominence of gizmos and gadgets that made me more than a little skeptical.

All of this being said, there were lots of great things about DevEx. Here are elements I especially liked:

I stayed awake: There was a variety of session formats, including TED-style talks, one-on-one interviews, panels, workshops, and informal mini-discussions called “flash talks”. The bits were all fast paced, with speakers only talking for up to ten minutes each, and sessions consisting of multiple formats in succession rather than, for example, one long-format panel. Like many people who’ve worked in communication for a long time, I tend to have mild attention-deficit issues, and it kept me engaged.

The speakers were awesome: DevEx featured a wide range of speakers – many of them heavy hitters – from the world of government, private sector, and NGOs. Yes, they trotted out USAID Administrator Gayle Smith just like other big development conferences, but they also brought out the head of the international relations team from the car-share giant Uber and one of the principals from Google.org, and they featured talks from lean, intriguing nonprofits like Hello Tractor, Nuru International, and charity: water. There were a lot of characters you wouldn’t normally find at a big development conference.

They took a risk: DevEx took a risk, and they definitely walked their innovation talk in assembling this conference. There’s nothing worse than sitting in a staid conference in a middling hotel, holding a goodie bag containing a Guatemalan-weave scarf, and listening to a bunch of shoddily clad government and NGO types drone on about how quickly the development sector is changing. If things are changing so quickly, how come the sector presents itself as frozen in time?

But the fact remains that those shoddily clad types are often the ones who – alongside partners in the developing world – are doing the daily, incredibly hard work of trying to help people claw their way out of poverty. And I fear that moving too far away from them could have negative consequences.

As I sat at DevEx fondling my light-up wristband (It flashed every time #DevexWorld got one million Twitter impressions!), watching conference attendees chat with a rolling-screen robot, or gazing at the high-tech flat-screen images of a parade of hip-looking speakers, a thought flashed through my mind: What does this all have to do with an impoverished farming family in Rwanda? Or a woman trying to get a loan to open a market stall in Haiti? Or a village wrestling with the need for latrines in Cambodia?

At that moment, I just wanted to wrap myself in a Guatemalan-weave scarf.