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In a normal year, hosting a conference with over 1,500 participants from more than 60 countries is quite a feat. Even more so on six months’ notice in the middle of a global pandemic. Yet, SID-Washington accomplished this at the 2020 Annual Conference in October. With more than 50 speakers over the course of two days, this year’s virtual event covered a wide range of international development topics, serving as the breeding ground for new ideas and connections. SID-W moved every aspect of the conference online – from its signature networking opportunities to its engaging and informative plenary sessions – with the help of our technology partner, TechChange.
Although we initially planned to host the conference during its usual time slot in May, we were forced to postpone and pivot to something different given the growing pandemic around the world. As Roger Ford (Managing Director, Global Lead, Accenture Development Partnerships) said, “Upon accepting the role as Chair of the Annual Conference Planning Committee last year, I would never have expected to be planning it in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, disruption and change presented an opportunity to rethink both the format of the conference in a virtual capacity and also how we could enhance the content to further benefit the development sector community during these unprecedented times.”
Through the theme of The Decade to Deliver, we focused on the United Nations’ target to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. To tackle such a broad and important topic, we aimed to bring a diverse set of speakers to highlight different perspectives. Ford noted that the “virtual conference format was an opportunity to showcase diversity in both content and exceptional levels of dialogue with high-profile speakers that contributed to a highly engaging agenda for the development sector. Also, the "Decade to Deliver" theme and the People, Planet, and Prosperity tracks that form the key pillars of impact and responsibility within the SDGs. They provided a foundation for amplifying collaboration, highlighting the international development communities' progress towards advancing the SDGs, and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.”
On October 7 and 8, over one thousand professionals joined us to learn, connect, and share their experiences and insight on some of the most pressing issues in international development. During these two days, we held several plenaries, panels, learning labs, discussion boards, networking sessions, sponsor booths, a “Lightning Talk” contest, and an Innovation Competition.
The conference began with a fireside chat with Ms. Bonnie Glick, the former USAID Deputy Director. One conference speaker, Mark Castellino (Vice President, Public Sector Business Development, Opportunity International & SID-W Workgroup Co-Chair), noted “The keynote fireside chat with Bonnie Glick was a great way to kick off the conference, as Bonnie provided some important updates from USAID on topics that would likely be of interest to most conference attendees.” After the keynote, there were a series of panel discussions, networking sessions and plenaries. One of our Lightning Talk winners, Jasmine Buttolph (Director, Global Health Practice, Panagora Group), highlighted that “the plenary discussions were really impactful. The technology that allowed us to chat publicly and share links and ideas during the plenary, was really interesting.”
Participants’ engagement was not only driven by these discussions, but continued through various discussion forums, in the networking lounges, and in direct chat messaging. To encourage participation, there was a point system that ranked the most active and engaged participants on the platform. The attendee with the most points, Ivy Akinyi (former Program Associate at SID-W), believed the most exciting part of the conference was “formulating questions/threads where you ask a question, and participants from various nationalities respond with their different views of the topic. Through this, I was able to interact with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures, and luckily in the process, I was able to connect with participants from my home country, Kenya.”
Castellino added that one of the greatest advantages of the virtual format was the ease of connecting with more people: “One of the most notable [advantages] was the ability to check the list of participants, see who is attending a particular event, and reach out to old contacts who I haven’t had a chance to talk to recently. SID-W did a great job of finding ways to make that personal connection and networking aspect of a conference possible in this remote format. Even before the conference started, I had people reach out to me to say that they saw my name on the list of attendees and wanted to reconnect. That’s one of the values of the Annual Conference and it worked really well in this virtual format.”
Moreover, Akinyi told us, “I was incredibly happy to network and reach out to various participants from all over the globe and I was also lucky to meet a few participants from my homeland and I must say that this was the best feeling. Besides this, I also reached out and communicated with members from various organizations such as Connective Impact, TechChange, ACDI/VOCA, and SID-W amongst many others.”
Although many attendees valued the networking aspect of the conference, Buttolph’s key takeaway was the drive of the international development community. She said, “the international development community has momentum, is energized, and is in no way deterred or slowed by the pandemic. If anything, the challenge has strengthened the core of adaptable development work.”
With the recent events in the United States, Castellino appreciated the discussions on diversity and inclusion, as it showed that SID-W “prioritized conversations about race both within international development as a sector and also specifically within international development organizations. Lauren Reese’s thought-provoking lightning talk and the panel discussion on addressing diversity in recruitment were highlights.”
With the conference in the rearview mirror, SID-W has already begun looking to 2021. We hope to build a bigger and better version next year. We hope to see all of you then, and thanks to those of you for attending!
For those who attended the conference, you can access all content through January 2021 by logging in to the conference platform. For those who were unable to attend, you can access recordings of most sessions on our YouTube channel now.
To learn more about our Annual Conference check out the following links: