When it comes to assessing the return on investment (ROI) in large, face-to-face meetings, it’s hard to think of a more basic measure than 3.8 million years of life.
With the approach of World AIDS Day December 1, the Harvard School of Public Health AIDS Initiative issued a verdict of sorts on the AIDS policies pursued by former South African president Thabo Mbeki. According to the New York Times, a Harvard study attributed 370,000 premature deaths to Mbeki’s “denial of the well-established scientific consensus about the viral cause of AIDS and the essential role of antiretroviral drugs in treating it.”
When she was sworn in recently as the country’s new health minister, Barbara Hogan declared that “the era of denialism is over in South Africa.” But by then, Harvard found, a delay in introducing AIDS drugs between 2000 and 2005 had killed 370,000 people.
Factoring in life expectancies in neighbouring countries that embraced antiretrovirals more quickly, Harvard estimated that the delays in South Africa led to the loss of at least 3.8 million years of life – just over 6.5 years for each of 334,300 adults, plus 45 years for each of 35,532 babies born with HIV infection.
When we produced the daily journal of the XVI International AIDS Conference in 2006, I rarely had time to stray very far from our operations room in a far corner of the international media centre. The exhibit area for governments and official agencies, in the south wing of the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, could just as well have been on another planet.
But our reporters and photographers brought back stories…of the exhibitor who declined the offer of a free condom, explaining that “God will protect me,” and of the South African government exhibit that extolled a concoction of garlic, lemon juice, and beetroot as a viable AIDS treatment.
There were other vignettes—so much more positive, and not at all delusional—that justified the time, money, and monumental resources involved in bringing more than 30,000 participants from more than 140 countries. In a case study for MPI’s monthly magazine, we reported on an evaluation by the International AIDS Society that paralleled the ROI studies conducted for more commercially-oriented conferences.
“The things delegates gained at AIDS 2006 will have an impact far beyond the conference and the individual delegate,” said IAS Evaluation Consultant Diana McConachy. Onsite, the majority of more than 7,000 delegates surveyed committed to at least one follow-up action, and many planned multiple activities. All 135 of the delegates contacted for a four-month follow-up survey cited at least one thing they’d done differently as a result of the conference.
Our case study also quoted Robyn Sussel, strategic communications advisor with Vancouver-based Signals Design Group, who said it’s hard to track tangible results from a conference like AIDS 2006.
“How would you measure that?” she asked. “Lives saved? Infections prevented? Those things are difficult.”
Which brings us back full circle to the Mbeki government, the Harvard study, antiretroviral drugs, garlic and lemon juice, and 3.8 million years of life.
How do we justify the value of very large, face-to-face events, particularly at a time when budgets are shrinking and carbon footprints are rising?
How do we measure the impact of the learning and networking that take place onsite, not only by tracking revenue and profits flowing from a sales conference, but by isolating the impact of a major health conference on policy and practice? On lives saved and infections prevented?
How can a conference help build understanding and momentum for policies based on the best available evidence—whether that evidence concerns the causes of HIV, the science behind climate change, or any of the hundreds of other issues and crises that participants gather to discuss onsite?
How do we structure very large events so that small, spread-out communities of interest—think of a few hundred food security specialists with an interest in HIV and nutrition, pushing through a crowd of 30,000 participants—can find each other and make best use of their time onsite?
How do we use meetings technology to help participants start a dialogue within their own specialty areas before they get onsite, then repurpose session content to help them continue the conversations afterwards and turn words into action?
Since 2006, I’ve been haunted by a placard from a grandmothers’ march that marked the beginning of the AIDS conference. The legend on the placard, “13 million kids—no parents,” is tragically out of date by now, but it’s still a stark reminder that the global economic crash is not the only crisis. On World AIDS Day, how focused are we on making conferences a part of the solution to one of the most profound challenges facing humanity?