The 2021 UKFIET conference was the 16th UKFIET conference but the first fully virtual one. It was planned and designed amid the uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic, making it highly unpredictable whether or not face to face meetings would be possible, under what conditions and what travel, both national and international, would be allowed. In the initial stages of planning the theme and subthemes in the summer of 2020, while we were aware of the huge disruption that had taken place globally, and the need for the conference theme to focus on this, we were perhaps naively assuming that by September 2021, things would be back to “normal”, and that the 16th conference would look very much like its predecessors, with delegates meeting in Oxford to present and discuss issues across a range of parallel themes. We had not at that stage recognised the need to apply the agreed conference theme to our own conference design. We constituted a conference committee and planned out a timetable following the tried and tested process from previous conferences.
By the time the first conference committee met in early December, the UK had experienced its second wave, and new variants were emerging, but case numbers in the UK were dropping, and the vaccination programme was just getting underway: we were cautiously hopeful that the conference could go ahead face to face in Oxford, but cognisant that international travel was still going to be difficult for many, so we planned for a hybrid conference, broadcasting live from as many rooms in the venue as costs and infrastructure would allow. The conference committee, together with representatives of the UKFIET executive committee, formed a contingency planning sub group to plan different options for various scenarios relating to pandemic.
By January, when the UKFIET board of Trustees met, the situation was very different: Infection rates and death rates were soaring- in the UK and globally. It was therefore agreed that the conference would need to be fully virtual. This then called for an urgent rethinking and redesign so that the call for papers could be adapted to reflect the design needs of a virtual conference. The option of postponing was considered as an alternative, but it was agreed that this might detract from the 2022 BAICE conference. The details and rationale for this redesign are discussed in more detail in a separate section below and in Appendix 1.
But COVID-19 was not the only impetus for change. From the very outset of conference planning, we had agreed that inclusion and diversity should be a key consideration: the term “redistributing” in the title was intended to have multiple interpretations, including consideration of how knowledge, power and participation in international development research, practice and discourse could be redistributed more equitably. We therefore included an inclusion and diversity officer as part of the conference committee to ensure that we kept a strong focus on this throughout the planning and delivery.
This conference report therefore sets out how and why we redesigned and planned this conference, evidence of the challenges, successes and effectiveness and considerations for how UKFIET can build back better in its convening and knowledge sharing work through conferences and other events in the future. It also includes a summary of the evaluation feedback received after the conference.