2018: No better time to be Living by our Principles

by Amanda Harding

My first mission for the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Office was to Somalia in the early 1990s. It was also my first ever venture onto the African continent. I could state the obvious: it was a shock with the scale and complexity of the conflict and its human impact unimaginable. As a first visit it also gave me a real insight into the ambivalence of what on face-value appear to be clear humanitarian principles and the rule of (international) law. With malnutrition levels still extremely high and access dependent on the largesse of fighting factions, agencies were debating what levels of food-aid pilfering were acceptable. How many lives would we save? How many more kalashnikovs would we see purchased on the food-aid market? Should we draw the line at 30% or 40% food-aid "losses"?


Much of the theory we, the self-appointed change makers, refer to starts from a high moral position - human rights, ethical imperatives, equality, justice, peace ... i.e. what we call doing the "right thing" and acting "responsibly". We then hit a wall, lose a little of our naïvety and re-package to produce a more pragmatic argument that talks to the cynical and powerful. This tends to bring out the compelling narratives of economic growth and security, minimising the complexity of change and avoiding pointing out responsibilities. Those with the power-in-your-face to implement change are only too happy to take the more easy to swallow linear, off the shelf solutions, even when their own intellectual and emotional intelligence says otherwise. Caught between a rock and a hard stone we buckle to their demands and they to their own survival instincts. We convince ourselves that "better the devil you know than the devil you don't" and reassure ourselves that we're changing the system from the inside.

And then we lose heart...

The more we lose confidence in the possibility of wider effective change the more we retrench.  We focus on change that is generated locally and grows outward infecting the system. We sell a story that ownership is key and that context rules. We celebrate incremental change, small victories and welcome human tales of bravery. Notions of positive deviance, community activism and even Ostrom's take on the "commons" and self-governance all resonate purpose. But how far do they take on the challenge of scale?

By now I should have some hardened heads nodding! 

The real question is, what is enough? The 70% aid distribution or the community-led process that sees private-public partnership loans to women farmers? When do we sacrifice purity of principle for the reward of sustainable scaled systems change? No doubt localised change is of immense value and should never be discounted, the ripple effect engages us in a game of patience that we no longer have time for if we were to place all our chips on this bet. The Doing Development Differently brigade has gone some distance to addressing this - problem-driven; iterative with lots of learning; engaging teams and coalitions, often producing hybrid solutions that are ‘fit to context’ and politically smart - but remains frustrated by its limited traction, impact and real influence.

At the start of this new year I'd like to suggest a positive and constructive path. One where our collective intellectual and emotional maturity gives us confidence to pursue the universal values we hold justifiably dear while valiantly fighting the good fight of systems change. As true activists we can mobilise our spheres of influence (and create new ones), accelerate these times of transition beyond the tinkering on the edges so common today and bring the local and global together into a network of enabled ecosystems where each inspires the other towards a profound shift. 

We are living a perfect storm. The opportunity for collective and positive change is massive. What will it take for each of us to grasp it and truly live by the very values we espouse?

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, 
Your thoughts become your words, 
Your words become your actions, 
Your actions become your habits, 
Your habits become your values, 
Your values become your destiny.” 
― Mahatma Gandhi

Clear as mud: the messy business of sense making

by Amanda Harding

Home in my North London maisonnette after an excessively long, intense day in Save the Children's Vauxhall offices, pulled between a tricky recruitment for a new country director in Sierra Leone, the launch  of a global child soldier campaign loved by Comms but risky for our local teams in Liberia and a frustratingly bad phone line to the education team in Mali reporting extraordinary progress on local language community schools ... my clumpy mobile rings just when I'm ready to turn in. This is the late 1990s. Communication with Monrovia is at best dodgy and more often completely cut as soon as it rains ... and it rains all the time in Monrovia. A call at this time of day is never good news. Our country director, experienced, self-assured and respected, explains calmly down the line that she is crouching beside her vehicle, the driver beside her on the ground, and the project officer sprawled underneath a little shaky. I can hear the sound of automatic fire, instructions being shouted, the screech of breaks and above all Jane's heavy breathing in my ear. My role isn't clear. What am I expected to do? How can I possibly make any sense of this and bring value?

I spend a lot of time trying to do something called "sense-making".  For myself, in a way that only a 50+ privileged white European woman can! Of my very grown-up teenagers, in a way that only an overly concienscous, feminist, vegetarian verging on the yiddisher-mama can. For my clients, my colleagues and my work-partners and most certainly the gatherings I'm often convening and the groups I'm apparently guiding ... sense making seems to be what its all about and what they call on me to do for them and with them.  

Even wikipedia has its own "sense making" slot and academics from all disciplines  have moved the term from its common-sense origins to a lofty ivory tower. But bottom line, and cognitive science aside, the appetite for sense-making has never been greater. And for good reason.

My own experience, mixed with some reading, a lot of listening and a lifetime of observing suggests that if we want to both connect the dots and make a stab at placing some new more positive and constructive dots on the collective canvas we would do well to follow these five pointers:

1. Develop empathy ...  and with that the ability to listen, to comprehend the other both intellectually and emotionally, but without having to agree or be complicit. 

2. Start the conversation where others are, not where we would like them to be.

3. There is no blue print ... always consider context, have the intelligence to hand, and with that what works and what doesn't with an eye to building on the best. 

4. Make the links ... bottom-up vs top-down are out-dated notions. Active connections that bring people together who, each in their own way, is trying to work out what's up, creates possibility for some collective sense-making.

5. Sense-making is never be the responsibility of one individual. Checking back, some triangulation and fact-checking move off-the cuff headlines to valuable insights.

Image by Igor Kopelnitsky

Image by Igor Kopelnitsky

A Tale of Two Houses

by Amanda Harding

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens (1859)

Juxtaposed the two houses couldn’t have been more different. One, a mid-19th century farmhouse built for the workers of the local chateau and today betraying its humble origins. The front of the house is covered with a mix of climbing roses, bedraggled ivy, a wild vine where the grapes are just beginning to ripen plus extraneous multi-coloured electrical wires draped over the chipped stone cladding. The garden, front –back- and-sides, is littered with what appears to be junk and, when at my most generous, I assume are the owners' preciously kept mementos. Rusting oil cans, loosely rolled chicken wire, a leaking tractor engine, a stove tipped on its side oven door long gone, paint pots, multiple unidentifiable metal pieces … all half-hidden by patches of knee-high grasses, delphiniums and the brambles that have crossed over from the public footpath that boarders one edge of the property. In return, more junk has spilled onto the said path – an unused tractor piece, a couple of tyres, an old carriage axel. If someone had intended to create this disorder, chaos and anarchy they would have had a hard time achieving this eclectic accumulation that disturbs the eye, deranges the senses and hints at some sort of underlying violence. 

Next door: not down the road, across the street or even up the hill, but smack next door with no other houses close by, lies a mirror copy of the first house. Or at least, identical twin houses at birth that have matured very differently. When on the market not so long ago it was hard to imagine who would buy it - given the state of the neighbours' house, the grumpy stance of Monsieur, the snappy noisy dogs, in short the pervasive unsettling vibes coming from "next door". And then a couple moved in, built up their tech business on the property, starting renovating the house, cleaning the garden, building an extension, and creating what must be the most orderly, spick-and-span house in a 10 km radius. And they stayed.

Five years on and the latest addition to the spick-and-span house has been completed - the house has doubled in size, the automatic gate is in place and latest high-tech bird feeder hooked expertly to the tree. The neighbours' snappy dogs are no longer anywhere to be seen and the junk on the public footpath has diminished. However, each house has remained true to its personality. One, filled with objects that fight for space, point to a disregard for an outsiders' judgement and suggest a social isolation that breeds a violence of your picking. The other, as it grows and the garden starts to mature, hints at a future where the hard corners of today become a little more rounded, the blackberry brambles welcomed and no longer hacked back, the local deer seen squeezing through a gap in the fence.

What once seemed impossible has become possible. Opposing cultures, generations and life-perspectives have together navigated a common pathway to achieve a form of cohabitation that will always be fragile, whose vulnerabilities will always need tending to but whose resilience strengthens from season to season.

"A person who has good thoughts cannot ever be ugly. You can have a wonky nose and a crooked mouth and a double chin and stick-out teeth, but if you have good thoughts it will shine out of your face like sunbeams and you will always look lovely.” The Twits, Roald Dahl, 1979


Jan Tschichold, Typographer "The New Typography"

To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war

by Amanda Harding

"For it is often the way we look at other people that imprisons them within their own narrowest allegiances. And it is also the way we look at them that may set them free." Amin Malouf, In the Name of Identity (2003).

In a small village a thirty minute drive from Berlin what looks like a very mixed crowd gather together, coffee and cake in hand, for the third of their "community dialogue" gatherings. They are becoming masters in the art of story telling, collective reflection and the creation of an instant "safe-space" where trust and confidence is built between people of different generations, nationalities, religions and genders. Taking their personal life-journeys as a starting place and putting them in the challenging historical context of war, division, exile, isolation and violence they also identify an alternative context where neighbours can be counted on, refuge and security re-established and the outlines of a positive future sketched out with some confidence.

Each has a story to tell, deeply personal, always moving, nuanced and often told with moments of humour, humility and hesitation. The nature of the safe-space and imperative to maintain confidentiality makes sharing the details of these stories here impossible - at least for now. Their general description ... leaving a "good life" in Homs of friends, family and a future mapped out for the uncertain promises and high risk journey to Germany; learning to live with the incomprehension of the "Westerners" who moved into the village post-1989 with their good jobs, well-traveled families and  little empathy for the forty years of secured isolation experienced by the "Easterners"; navigating as a single-mother social services, health appointments, the search for decent housing, supermarket alleys with little German, small kids and the suspicious eyes of all communities on you, the "head-scarfed" woman from the "other" culture ... Behind each of these is a real person, their family, their community, all far removed from the head line stereotypes we're so easily trapped by.

In sharing these stories, the group, initially suspicious of each other if well meaning, learns to listen (helped by the translators who themselves integrate into the group and share their own insights) , to draw parallels with their own experiences, to respect the other and increasingly the group begins to set its own pace, decide together topics for discussion and offer each other real support.

In a location laden with living history and memory taking the risk to lift the lid off the box and seek a new form of active and creative social cohesion needless to say meets with some resistance, as well as looks of disbelief from funders and practitioners all in search of the magic bullet to the conflict and polarisation dividing communities across Europe today.

There appears to be a lot of talk about war right now ... possible attacks on Guam, post-election violence in Kenya, new battle fronts and configurations in Syria, white supremacists in the US. Whether regional or local, idealogical, ethnically or economically motivated, the polarised profile of these zones of conflict all indicate a current culture of fatality. War is inevitable. Violence is an inherent feature of mankind. 

And yet convened safe spaces where conversation is valued and listening takes on the same importance as talking are increasingly proving their worth. The appetite for dialogue is surely there and we are starting to pin point what works where and how. Translating the lessons of community dialogue in our German village to the Board Room where "business-for-good" continues to elude the executive, scaling up the lessons of social cohesion to other communities in Europe, applying the same rigour, emotional maturity and strategic intelligence to global wicked problems ... the urgency to jaw-jaw is staring us in the face at all levels. 

For an inspiration of what is possible... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7XhrXUoD6U  Look beyond borders, Amnesty Poland, 2016


Is Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan turning out to be just CSR in disguise?

by Amanda Harding


Business writers have been having a hay-day covering the “big” story of this past week – the failed Kraft Heinz bid for Unilever. No question that in pure money terms this is indeed big news. If these two giants had managed to merge, we would have witnessed the biggest ever takeover by a foreign company of a UK company and a clear victory for a “certain way” of doing business.

However, the back-story is certainly more interesting, a little more complex and with consequences that could be far reaching. Just days after this very public collapse, pressure on Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, has seen UL commit to a far reaching review to show shareholders the very value spotted by its rival. Graeme Pitkethly, the UL CFO, said Kraft's offer had highlighted the importance of achieving a balance between long-term sustainable value, which it had prioritized, and short-term delivery. UL’s investors may not support the slash-and-burn tactics that define Kraft-Heinz and more specifically the killer combination of Warren Buffet and Jorge Paulo Lehmann, but neither do they appear to be as seduced by the long-term strategies espoused by Polman and his team.

In an age when state protectionism (as the front cover of the January 2017 Economist states – “In Retreat – Global Companies in an era of protectionism”) combined with national deregulation threatens both social safety nets and the (small) environmental gains made over recent years the signals from Unilever are of real concern. Will the 2016 beauty queen of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index soon fall down the ranks, pulling others down with her and confirming the more cynical that Corporate Social Responsibility really is a glossy form of Business as Usual? Will business commitments to the UN Sustainable Development Goals continue to provide attractive graphics for annual sustainability reports leaving the non-business partners the heavy responsibility and practical task of ensuring a thriving future for our planet?

This bid is clearly a challenge to the progressive and enlightened. It is more important than ever that business leaders such as Paul Polman and Danone’s Emmanuel Faber maintain their vision of business as a force for good and the plethora of strategies and actions this implies. It is also more important than ever that investors recognise that that true value of business is reflected as much in value created for social networks and ecosystem services as the direct share value they tend to focus on.

In launching the New AnglesEarly Strategies international survey earlier this month (and still open till 17 March), “Is CSR Changing Business”, we will try to ascertain, from the insider perspective of middle-management, the extent to which the CSR intent and efforts made over recent years have made an impact on business behaviours. We expect this to inform business strategies of the future in line with our common conviction that business can and must be a force for good.



2017 - Forced Optimism or the Real Thing. It HAS to be the Real Thing.

by Amanda Harding

Over the past few weeks I've been astonished by an all pervasive determination to demonstrate the power of positive action. In one evening in Brussels to celebrate International Human Rights Day I was honoured to MC a powerful spirit of universalism that demolished our perceptions of an exclusive polarised society. A young Eritrean man braved an audience of six hundred to share how he was mentored by a retired business executive not only towards finding a job but also accompanied through the maze of adaptation and integration in an increasingly conflict ridden Europe. The inter-generational and multi-cultural beauty of this was matched by the mentor who described the self-esteem he gained through this friendship and the sensitive facilitation of Duo for a Job. Dare to be Grey, a Dutch student network inspired as a counter-culture opposing the black vs. white, Christian vs. Muslim, native (read nationalist) vs. migrant lived today. Naturally at ease with social media they are also engaging directly in schools, churches, town halls and market places, to encourage dialogue so that the middle ground becomes THE sexy place to be! As the evening went on an inclusive conversation bringing together the six hundred present merged into a concert given by first generation refugees. The audience was soon on its feet alight with the promise of the possible.


Local action that crosses boundaries is also crossing scales. When social media is alerted and policy makers start to sit up and listen a shift in realities starts to occur. France's latest feminist movement, le Salon des Dames, is close to my heart and a current conduit for my energies. A class act with a great sense of humour it is demonstrating an ability to embrace way beyond the traditional women's organisations. Its willingness to speak out, to inform and to step across established  established lines makes glow in the dark. How far it can now use its voice and growing weight to effectively move the lines remains to be seen.

With this backdrop, we seem to have started 2017 convincing ourselves and each other that this is the year for action. I loved the determined positive messages exchanged at midnight on the 31st. That we can't be bystanders watching from the sidelines, that we can't go on wringing our hands, that the militancy of our twenties has seen a renaissance energising us like never before is now a given. We have undeniably entered an era that demands urgent action and one that demands the type of emotional intelligence and insights that will lead us to alternative pathways and away from the ones currently drawn up before us. So, urgent action but also long term investment. 

I can say with utter conviction that the passion for change that has carried me for the past 35 years is stronger than ever and that, as an older person turning fifty in just a few days, I treasure the layers of experience, the privilege of multiple encounters and the permission I now give myself to step forward, to step up and to take risks in the knowledge that beside me others will reach out and join in.


In multiplying local initiatives and constructing communities that welcome difference, debate and dialogue the chances for the "possible" certainly increase. In opening up spaces where improbable encounters take place and authentic conversation grows, innovative solutions will doubtless be triggered. In building trust and common  visions where we are all "winners", dream lists of what we hope for will transform into the action, commitments and investments that go beyond intent and promise and ensure results.

Why visibility matters

by Amanda Harding

I've always claimed that I'm most comfortable behind the camera and am still today notorious for avoiding the limelight. I've taken this to an extreme: as a student designing theatre sets putting me at the heart of my passion for the theatre yet away from the eye of the audience, a few years later making my own documentary and news pieces until I found myself going as far as handing the camera over to the very subjects of the movie, and now spending the last years connecting, enabling and accompanying often in the name of others. Participatory video is now mainstream, taught to students, practiced by farmers in Ethiopian highlands, youth in Leeds and indigenous peoples in Amazon. Twenty five years ago it was an act of conviction based on the notion that the best story tellers are those that have lived the story itself and that can communicate directly with others. Cutting out the middle(wo)man cuts through the lines of power and creates much needed space for honest authentic conversations.

Nevertheless, who can deny the feelings of pride, satisfaction and surge of confidence that come with the pat on the back, the public compliment, the unexpected thanks. Working in the shadows, behind the scenes, in the wings is certainly a noble position. Giving credit to others in the expectation that their sense of ownership and even responsibility grows is core thinking to the enablers and conveners we claim to be. And yet  how valid, how effective, how rewarding is this really? Are we doing a disservice to ourselves and others through a sense of modesty and humility? Aren't we undermining our very efforts to see change come about by diminishing ourselves while building up others? Limiting ourselves to neutral facilitators not only do we limit our own potential but we also play into the hands of the very power-brokers that, in theory, we aim to challenge. We become complicit in a system that we state we want to see changed.

It is needless to say neither one thing or the other. Neither a claim for directive, arrogant, autocratic if informed leadership nor a call for anarchic if fully owned process-exclusive common decision-making. With clarity of thought, intelligent insight and respectful inclusiveness our responsibility is to talk up and talk out. It is for us to take the stage while constructing the space for the brave conversations that are so absent today. And to do this sheltering behind others is bound to fail as is a pretence of objectivity. Reaching out, holding hands and stepping up is certainly terrifying - to me - but promises energy, solutions and excitement that is sorely missing today.

Learning for a Reason. Stories and Science

by Amanda Harding

Recently I've been trying to learn about a whole new subject area. Given my education, professional experience and constant search for excellence and truth I turned first to the latest research, using the internet to start building up a body of references. I soon had the "science" under my belt and could quote one school of thought against another, one evidence-based solution neutralising the next, leaving me perplexed by this so called rational intelligence that gave me nothing that actually resonated with me.

Next, I turned to the stories, looking for personal experiences that somehow mirrored my own. Empathy and solidarity (and not sentimentality) gave me greater insight into the more standard search for "challenges, opportunities and solutions". Mapping my new found "hard" knowledge onto the "soft" - the real experiences of people whose journeys saw them navigating the very complexity the scientists find so hard to express - was a breath of fresh air. From a position of ignorance I grew more confident to take decisions from a position of knowledge and greater emotional maturity. I learnt the power of taming the "science" with the "story" and the story with the science. 

10 days on from the Paris attacks in my adopted home town (one thread amongst others connected to the downed Russian plane, the Beirut attacks, Kenya, Northern Nigeria, Tunisia, not to mention daily life in Mossul, Raqqa, etc ... and now Mali)  the fear and grief in the city is still palpable. There is tension in the air and a deep sadness. And defiance. Throughout the day you hear, "life must go on", "we must defend our values" and then an understandable backtrack with a preference to stay home for dinner, catch a movie next week not this ... Thrown into this we are inundated with phoney science. One specialist after another holds forth, a repetitive psycho-babble come socio-political analysis that we are meant to take as the "truth" to off-set the politicians who, authentic in their sentiment but out to maximise their political advantage, can certainly not be trusted. And so, in the absence of any truly informed analysis and with sentiment fed by fear and grief riding high decisions are made.

Holding onto our genuine fear is nevertheless fundamental. It is the source of our emotional solidarity and empathy with the thousands still living in fear every day, whether threatened by Daech, a repressive regime, or the abuse of a family member. For those of us fortunate not to live this fear everyday needless to say we also have a responsibility to inform ourselves and to act - locally with our families and communities, as well as globally as we too are threads connected together crossing boarders, crossing religions, crossing identities.  And so we need to triangulate. Combining rigorous analysis while giving credence to the stories we have a better chance of being able to navigate our way forward.

shoot hip.jpg

If we could learn not to shoot from the hip but to really exploit our emotional maturity and intellectual curiosity we give ourselves some hope of emerging from a climate of reaction, quick fix solutions and sentimental exploitation. We move from a position of vulnerability to one of self-knowledge, strength, vision and action.

Shipwrecked in Sicily

by Amanda Harding

Four days into a family holiday in Palermo and by now I should have my sense of direction sorted. This is, in theory, not a difficult city to navigate with the port down one end and the Porta Nueva up the other and yet I'm seriously challenged. I'm unsure which direction I'm looking in, unsure of the mastery of the architecture juxtaposed to what feels like bombed out buildings, unsettled by the wealth of arabo-norman-byzantine religious art and the under tone of chronic poverty, in awe of the 20 meters of road closed to traffic following archaeological finds opposite a school, also closed for repairs but where builders haven't been seen for months and power remains firmly in the hands of the mafia. The 6 am cathedral chimes from across the road wake me in much the same way the mosque used to wake me in Damascus and allow my mind to drift back to a city I love but is today transformed by conflict.

Palermo, April 2015

Palermo, April 2015

In trying to understand where my constant sense of confusion and bewilderment comes from I'm thrown back into the history of this island and its glory days from the 8th to the 16th centuries and to its history-in-the-making today as refugees from the Middle East and Africa arrive shipwrecked on its shores. As I struggle to make sense of my own vulnerabilities and limitations and strive to overcome my own weaknesses and confusion the chaos and complexity of this city is strangely calming. Its very strength lies in its hybrid nature. Its sustainability and endurance in its ability to exist on the edges of every empire and regime that has touched it, including the current powers in Rome and its alignment to a European stringent framework.

For someone like me who comes from a classic English education and has been "formatted" to honour the "system" this is naturally a bit of a shock. But at a time when life has thrown up the unexpected, has made clear where priorities must lie and where unconditional love, as unexplainable as it is, must be the dominant therapy, feeling shipwrecked in Sicily has certain advantages.

Reinventing the workshop

by Amanda Harding

Imagine a workshop where people come together for five days with the stated aim of producing a range of specific documents designed to carry forward a body of work ten years in the making. No PowerPoint sessions. No orchestrated exercises involving small group discussions and report-backs. No scheduled coffee breaks. The walls remain bare of flip charts and not a single post-it note is evident. By noon on the final day we have produced:

 1.     A full draft proposal for a global initiative on the role of hydropower in the water-energy-food nexus

2.     An analysis of learning systems efficiency across the CGIAR ChallengeProgram on Water and Food (CPWF) basins

3.     A set of guidelines for Integrating engagement, knowledge management and ‘communications’ into project pathways

4.     A web-based resource that allows access to 50 fellowship recipients now working in organizations throughout Africa

5.     An evidence-based ‘profile of innovators’ that will help projects identify and connect with innovators at the community level

6.     A critical comparison of Research for Development (R4D) experience across three African basins

7.     A policy brief on water and food security

8.     A guide to partnerships and engagement

9.     A series of ‘desksider’ briefing notes that can be tailored for specific presentations and donor meetings

Each item has a clearly delineated plan of action with a timeline detailing how its named champions will bring them to the attention of specific individuals and groups who will use them.

How is this possible? How did this work?

The essential ingredients

We suggest there are a number of essential ingredients in this currently unorthodox format.

Stop calling it a workshop and start calling it what it is

We called our meeting, “Capitalizing on insights, results, networks and opportunities, outputs and their dissemination.” A bit cumbersome, but accurate. We suggest simply not using the word ‘workshop’ or its more recently coined cousin, the ‘writeshop’. Why? Because  ‘workshop’ has become a meme.

A meme is an idea that replicates itself from one brain to another, like one of those tunes you can’t get out of your head. As soon as you say the word “workshop”, the planners start contriving an agenda. Walk into any hotel seminar room anywhere in the world any day of the week and you will see pretty much the same thing. People who arrived expecting nothing more than what was handed to them in a tightly scripted agenda prepared by people they have never met, being marched through a schedule that generates lots of lists and points, listening to people talk about things that interest some but seldom everyone, doing their email, working on their office reports, enjoying the local cuisine, and squeezing in a little sightseeing and some shopping. They leave with a few scraps of new information, a few new contacts, assurances all around that it was a worthwhile experience, and fly home. In this increasingly wired and connected world - no longer good enough.

Start with a clear concept

Calling a meeting what it is helps clarify the concept. Our concept was “a meeting of minds to capitalize on insights, results, networks and opportunities arising from the ten years of work done by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF)”. The concept was framed this way:

CPWF projects are now completed and basin and programme messages established, making reflection possible on the wide diversity of research-for-development (R4D) results. Whilst the CPWF network/community is still intact, there is one last opportunity to connect cross-basin reflection to concrete outputs and opportunities and to identify those elements on which the CGIAR Water Land and Ecosystems program (WLE) and other past and future partners could profitably build. The meeting brings together in-depth knowledge and experience of CPWF basin leaders and external participants to facilitate insightful reflection, targeted outputs, committed follow-up plans and defined opportunities to ensure outputs are effectively communicated and taken up.

Pretty specific right? How can we continue to justify spending tens of thousands of dollars bringing people to meetings and NOT be this specific?

The right mix of people

We worked hard to collectively identify who would come to our gathering, ensuring they complimented each other, brought both 'insider' and 'outsider' insights, global reach, were ‘inter-generational’ and each came with a sense of purpose rather than obligation or for time away from the office, more air miles and per diems. “By invitation” would be a good rule of thumb. Or ask people to ‘apply’ by writing down their reasons for wanting to attend.


In the three weeks prior to the meeting, there was an extensive exchange of emails and Skype chats in which people collectively shaped the work they would do during our time together. We used a modified Delphi technique as outlined in the box below. ‘Modified’ because things got less anonymous as we progressed. People arrived at the venue knowing what they were expected to produce. They had most of the required materials they would need and clear expectations of what was expected of them. Why shouldn’t the people you invite to a training event or program meeting also participate in the planning?

Adaptive management

Our first meeting was 4:30 PM on the first day. We sat in a circle of chairs and individuals and groups outlined the work they wanted to do. Each morning we met at 8 AM, before breakfast, to plan for the day. At 4 PM, we met again to talk about the progress made, to share information, and to ask for input from other members of the group. In between, individuals and groups were left to get on with their work. Sometimes we held impromptu ‘power sessions’ where an individual or group would hold up their work for critical comment. People worked in their own style, at their own pace, uninterrupted as much as possible.

The venue

We chose a secluded venue, in this case, an old wine estate 40 km from the nearest urban center. No restaurants and pubs, no nightlife, no shopping malls. No distractions other than the natural beauty around us. And rather good food that we enjoyed together. Nothing to do but think and write.

 Can it work for you?

Some people have said, “Oh, that’s all right for you. You were working with senior people and you knew what you wanted.” Am I wrong in hearing in that statement an implicit assumption that there are meetings where some people attend not knowing what they want?

Walking away from the conventional workshop meme is not that hard. All it takes is a little imagination and a strong desire to do something a bit more creative.

It’s far past time to reimagine the ‘workshop’ format. Given the time, effort and cost that goes into them, we all deserve to get much more in return.

This blog is co-authored with Terry Clayton, co-designer, facilitator and conspirator in this venture.

Amanda Harding: development consultant and change agent, based in Paris, France amanda@amandaharding.org & www.amandaharding.org

Terry Clayton: freelance science writer and cognitive psychologist, based in Northeastern Thailand clayton@redplough.com & www.redplough.com

The CPWF Executive Writer’s Retreat was held 23-27 June, 2014 at the Auberge du Cedre, Lauret, France and was funded by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food through the CGIAR Water, Land and Ecosystems Program.