by Tran Quynh Hoa
HA NOI — I was recently awed by the size of an annual conference organised by a United Nations agency in Europe. About 1,500 delegates from around the world gathered for the two-day event to discuss rural poverty.
While the meeting must have been important for policy-makers and donors, during the discussions, many participants wandered outside into the lobby and went to sleep. Most had travelled thousands of miles and were suffering from jet lag. The "success" of the conference was apparently announced at the closing session – for all those still awake.
Sending each participant to that particular conference would have cost many thousands of dollars, taking into account the long-distance air fares, accommodation at classy hotels, transport and food. The money spent on one participant alone could have helped thousands of poor people, many of whom exist on less than $1.25 a day – the World Bank's indicator of "extreme poverty." Nearly one fourth of the world's population manages to survive on or about that figure. Most are from rural areas in developing countries – the target groups the conference aimed to help.
In Viet Nam, conferences are generally much smaller, 50 to 300 people per meeting is perhaps the average. Although it is now not the busy conference season (which is towards year-end), many big hotels are still hosting them. The five-star Melia in Ha Noi has an average of five such conferences a day.
Each package (venue and food) for each participant per day costs about $40. Caravelle, a five-star hotel in HCM City, also has about five conferences a day with an average of nearly 200 participants. The average cost per participant is $47. If the situation is the same at all 25 five-star hotels in the country, the total amount spent on venues alone for conferences would be about $108 million a year.
In contrast, for just VND5,000 ($0.24), a tasty meal can be prepared with steamed rice and meat for a child in the northern mountains. Many indigenous children in remote provinces such as Ha Giang and Yen Bai can't afford one such meal a week. If the $108 million spent on five-star venues for conferences each year was used to help poor children, it would provide nearly 450 million such nourishing meals.
If all the conferences achieved anything, it would not be an issue. But most of my colleagues complain that many conferences they go to are just a waste of time. Most follow a common format, particularly those at the local level.
First, the host reads a lengthy general report, which has already been distributed to all participants. Second, representatives of all relevant organisations spend most of their time talking about their achievements, but include few initiatives. Then a leader makes a speech summing up the event.
By this time, many delegates have already left the room for one reason or another or are preparing to move. Finally comes the happiest moment of the conference – lunch with the host! Many conferences are organised at luxurious and far away beach resorts. As a result, many times delegates find themselves on what amounts to a paid holiday.
Late last year, amidst the country's credit crunch and inflation storm, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung called for tighter fiscal policies to reduce public debt, which reached some 55 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year.
One of the measures he indicated was minimising the organisation of conferences and workshops.
A resolution issued by the latest National Assembly meeting also pointed out the necessity of reducing the number of conferences and workshops as one of the measures to keep the budget deficit in 2012 no more than 4.8 per cent of GDP.
But while Government leaders are busy finding out how to turn their plans into reality, hotel managers are still happy counting the number of conference bookings every day. — VNS