The Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy: A Convener’s Outrespective

Kim GehebIrrawaddy River Basin, Mekong Blog, Mekong River Basin, Red River Basin, Salween River Basin0 Comments


Written by WLE Greater Mekong Regional Coordinator, Dr. Kim Geheb

‘Outrespection’. A word as ambiguous as ‘nexus’. The online Collins dictionary defines it as “a method in which you get to know oneself by developing relationships and empathetic thinking with others”.

The forum emerged to address two different issues: our need to tackle and find solutions to regional problems and our need for those solutions to reach the people who can actually use them. For these needs to be met, dialogue has to traverse both national boundaries and sector divides. Consistently, over the years, between 40-50% of participants at our fora have been non-researchers.

We held our first forum under the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) in 2011. This is the forum where, on Day 2, as Dr Chayanis from SEI embarked on her presentation, the hotel staff were still struggling to close the partition between the two session rooms. In the end, the partition derailed, and both sessions were forced to listen to each other.

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It attracted 160 participants, but numbers are not an indicator of quality. I had learned that one of the best ways of gauging quality occurs during the coffee breaks, and I would wander through these, pausing to eavesdrop on conversations between participants. Our fora have always been great networking events, that much was evident. People spoke about their work, their projects and so on, and they complained about the coffee (always judge the quality of a forum by the quality of its coffee, I say). For a forum to be successful, one needs session conversations to spill out into the coffee spaces, then digress to consider other issues, and then return to the forum once more. I wasn’t hearing enough of this to reassure me that we were on the right track.

Innovation, we believe, is a social process. People don’t just seize new ideas and adopt them promptly. New ideas have to be considered carefully, in discussion, through opportunities to query, through debate. To be acceptable, they have to be socialized. And then – maybe – the idea will, in part or in whole, be adopted and adapted. This absolutely does not work if the recipients of new knowledge cannot understand the idea to start with.

In 2011, our researchers stood there as scientists at a conference. Slide after slide after slide of technical detail served as the scripts for the nervous presenters. Our government and NGO and international organization participants turned to their mobile phones and laptops uncomprehending and dulled by too much information. It was like having two people in a room, one of whom is talking in a language the other doesn’t understand. The presentations were highly technical research pieces. Which is great at a research conference, but that wasn’t what we were aiming for.

Insofar as outrespection is concerned, this was my key take-away from the 2011 event. It was a good event; I think we can be proud of it as our very first one, but a key part of its mission was unaccomplished.

Oh, and that the coffee needs to be good coffee.

lowerPhoto credit: WLE Greater Mekong

In the 2012 and 2013 fora, our attendance continued to increase as we introduced key changes. In 2012, we added the organizational abilities of Jackie and Hoabinh Tourist, who from then on was considered an absolute necessity for all future fora. In 2013, the CPWF was coming to an end, and our projects had many results to share. We had also recently appointed a network coordinator, the multi-lingual Stew Motta, and the forum was to benefit considerably from his networking efforts. And we looked to much better integrate our communications team into the planning.

Perhaps most importantly, we began to impose designs upon the project teams: we argued for fewer and shorter presentations, with much less text and much more story telling. To showcase our research results, we designed a ‘Knowledge Reservoir’ (which, during planning, we referred to as the ‘Knowledge Swamp’ – positively goopy with ideas and knowledge), a herculean effort led by Mia Signs. And finally, we increased the length to three days, given increasing interest in the event and the need for more session spaces.

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The last forum had 237 participants representing 92 different agencies. There were representatives from every hydropower development agency in the Mekong, except one. The discussions had been extremely rich – not uniformly, for there is always variation, but generally. As I walked though the session rooms, the Knowledge Reservoir, the coffee breaks, the lunches, I knew that our programme could be justifiably proud. The session leads had worked hard to limit the presentations, the Knowledge Reservoir had been a huge success, and conversations during the coffee breaks hummed with anecdotes from previous sessions. With our community of practice seemingly on board with respect to the deliberation focus, we turned to thinking about the management of that focus – its facilitation.

Facilitation is a remarkably under-rated activity. A facilitator is a moderator, a referee, an entertainer, a sythesiser, a listener. Not everyone is a born facilitator – me least of all. But I do know what a good facilitator looks like. Michael Victor, our Global Communications Coordinator is an excellent facilitator. Part of the reason for this is not just the structure he brings to a session, the questions he has up his sleeve when the conversation splutters, the techniques he uses to assemble a conversation. It’s also because he knows the subject matter.

There was no forum in 2014. This was the year that the CPWF ended a decade of intensive research-for-development learning, and the ‘focal regions’ of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) were starting up. It was a year of transition. But planning for the fourth forum then started in May, 2015. Coming off the back of the 2013 forum, we felt pretty confident. We had reputation now. Trust had been established with participants knowing what to expect, and knowing that the forum was a ‘safe space’ for their often contrasting perspectives. We decided to take the event back to Phnom Penh, back to the Cambodiana with one short-coming: we didn’t think we’d be able to get more than 250 people into the main plenary hall – and we had every reason to think that the forum would be the largest yet: the interest was out there; it was humming.

fisherPhoto credit: WLE Greater Mekong

That May, I headed down to Addis Ababa for a CGIAR knowledge-sharing event, and during one session on ‘critical uncertainties’ watched its leader, an American fellow by the name of Fisher Qua. His was a technique that explored the world of paradox; there was nothing touchy-feely about his facilitation technique – it urged retrospection, contemplation and anecdote. It was, it seemed to me, a technique built on story telling as its premise, and sure enough, participants rolled out their stories one after the other. It took me no more than five minutes to decide that this man would solve our facilitation problems.

We came down quite hard on our session leads this year. Only three presentations per session, no more than five slides per presentation, and little or no text. The researchers grumbled, but we were used to that. We set them up with Fisher, who then worked with each and every one of them to construct their session plans. We were skeptical that he’d be able to do this for 20 sessions, but the man’s energy seemed inexhaustible. He seemed never to sleep, scheduling Skype meetings deep into his Seattle nights. These consultations were required for our regular sessions. Special sessions could take advantage of Fisher’s support if they wished, but not many did.


306 people signed up this year. They represented 139 institutions. Our 250 participant ceiling lay in tatters. We implemented 39 sessions. In 2013, we had implemented 20. The growth in participants represented a 33% increase. We think you were generally happy with the forum: in response to the question on its overall quality, you gave us an average score of 4.3 out of 5 (67 responses) – but that still leaves 0.7 points of improvement we can still make.

I did not fill in the participant survey at the end of the forum. If there were things I didn’t like, it was that most of chairs in the main ballroom (Session Room 1) were maintained in the plenary lay out. I think we should have had more space there. I didn’t like the Knowledge Lounge either: too long and too dark, and certainly not the ‘lounge’ we had hoped it would be. Sure, there were some sessions that could have been a little more effervescent, and some that were perhaps too effervescent, but the general session quality seemed very high to me (you also liked the facilitation – 4.4 out of 5); and the launches of the Mekong River Basin Dams map and Mekong Citizen – well, they didn’t launch at all…

But the things I did like were: the quantum leap in the quality of session designs and facilitation; the sense that the entire dialogue on water, food and energy had shunted forwards; the immense diversity of the event and, in particular, the presence of so many Myanmar delegates; I liked how frequently I heard people laughing and how noisy the coffee breaks were; I liked that the private sector representatives we had there were as strident and vocal as they were; I liked the work the programme fellows did and their report back at the end of the forum; I liked the banquet night and how intensely people spoke with each other there, to the accompaniment of the excellent music provided by Master Kong Nay and his chapei dang weng. Perhaps best of all was the overall sense that something was happening.

And what surprised me? Nobody commented on how good the coffee was.

KIM Informal Signature

Kim Geheb – WLE Greater Mekong Regional Coordinator

kimsmilesPhoto credit: WLE Greater Mekong

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