Why virtual events are a game-changer for Global South scholars

Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash

In March 2020, Southern Voice held its last in-person event in New York with researchers from around the Globe. One scholar had a last-minute visa issue, and we had to replace him quickly. Had the event been fully or partially virtual, he would have been able to join without any problems. But at the time, none of us even considered it.

How things have changed since then! Today, virtual events are the norm. Out of necessity, yes. But even with “zoom fatigue”, there are advantages to this format that speak in favour of keeping it after the pandemic:

1. Virtual events are more democratic and inclusive

High-level policy events rarely take place in the Global South. For anyone from the southern hemisphere wanting to attend, this means:

  • Going through an often complicated and suspenseful visa process that might be unsuccessful. Yes, even for a highly accomplished academic, the visa is not a given.
  • Taking various flights with mostly complicated and tiresome connections and lengthy transit times at different airports.
  • Depending on the country of origin and gender, the person might have to endure uncomfortable scrutiny at every passport control.
  • Once the person gets to the destination, there can be an issue of jetlag. It affects the person’s health and ability to take part in the discussion at their best.
  • Travel and accommodation costs in policy capitals like New York, Brussels etc., are high and often limiting for an organization from the Global South.

I can tell you, it is quite a relief to to skip all these disadvantages and join the conversation from home. At one of our recent online events, in cooperation with the United Nations Foundation, we had people attending from New York to Tokyo, spanning over all continents and time zones. The diversity of speakers and in the audience was fantastic, highly enriching the discussion.

Added bonus: by including people from all over the world in virtual events, we contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 10 (reduced inequalities), which, among others, calls for ensuring “enhanced representation and voice for developing countries in decision-making”.

2. Virtual events are better for the planet

To attend our event in New York last year, our group of eight people produced ca. 28 tons of carbon emissions from air travel. According to the BP carbon emissions calculator, “offsetting 1 ton of emissions is equivalent to the carbon removed by 600 square meters of tropical rainforest in a year”. Now, imagine how many tons of CO2 are released by the thousands of attendees of each yearly UN High-Level Policy Forum in New York or the UN Climate Summit. Exactly!

The World Bank wisely cancelled its Spring Meeting last year. It was mainly due to COVID-19 but also because of its massive environmental footprint. Its staff association estimated that each Spring Meeting has a footprint of “79,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to driving nearly 17,000 cars for a year”. The association representatives wrote: “The financial and environmental costs are enormous, and the optics are terrible. Maybe COVID19 is our wake-up call.” At least the 2021 Spring Meeting was online as well. One can hope that it remains like that onwards or at least alternates between in-person and virtual. We all take ” climate action “, as called for in SDG 13, by joining meetings and events from home, rather than taking a plane.

Since the onset of the pandemic, Southern Voice has held 19 online events and participated in numerous more. Even our bi-annual conference from November 9-11, 2021, will be held virtually for the first time. This format will allow not just the Executive Directors of our member think tanks but anyone interested to join. So don’t miss the chance to register here.

3. Virtual events have made us all “more relatable”

In 2017, the video of Prof. Robert Kelly talking about South Korea to the BBC went viral. Yet, it was not because of what he was saying. It was because of what happened in the background: his children interrupted the interview on air.

At the time, it was not just unusual but also hugely embarrassing. Since 2020 though, we all have had at least one moment like that. Interruptions have become standard. For more than a year now, we have been looking into people’s homes. It has somehow made us all more human, more flexible and more approachable. Thanks to COVID-19, we now know our colleagues’ children, their parents and often even their pets. Rather than being annoying, it has become a sort of ice-breaker for the awkward virtual atmosphere.

So, from a southern perspective, I strongly advocate for the virtual event space to stay. For all of us who live far away and/or have caring obligations, being able to still participate at events as a speaker or just listening in is a real game-changer.

Undoubtedly, the in-person events will be back, probably even “with a revenge” (bigger, louder etc.). And networking and advocacy sure is more accessible face to face. But for those far away from traditional policy capitals, virtual events have opened up new possibilities for participating and learning. So, let’s keep that up!

This article was originally published by Southern Voice.

Recommended Articles