The web-based electronic conference (Web/E-Conference) preceding the inter-agency SLA Forum ran from 9 February until 2 March 2000. Participation was open to those interested in sustainable livelihoods approaches but who were unable to attend the SLA Forum, as well as to those who planned to participate in the Forum. The 338 Web/E-Conference participants came from a wide variety of backgrounds, development agencies and countries.
The Web/E-Conference was organized around four review papers (included in their entirety in Annex 4):
The Web/E-Conference was organized around a "bulletin board" structure, where each of the basic documents, opening questions, suggested threads and ensuing discussions was posted on the website in turn.
The Web/E-Conference began with brief introductory modules describing the background and purpose of the conference and providing participants with information on how to use the website, followed by the posting of DFID's "Guidance Sheets" on SL approaches as background documentation for the participants.
The basic, overarching questions posted by the conference team, aimed at stimulating thinking on the characteristics and underlying principles of SL approaches, were:
1. SLA: Another approach? What's wrong with the ones we have? What's new?
2. SLA: Are we talking about analysis or action?
3. SLA: Is it a means or an end?
4. I am a technical specialist. What can SL approaches do for me?
5. SLA: It looks great on paper. How do we get it to work in the field?
6. SLA: It could make a real difference. But how do we know it really works?
Other modules posed questions to stimulate discussion on each of the four review papers. Although each paper was discussed during its own time slot, discussions remained open to the end of the conference.
Moderators for each review paper occasionally guided the discussion either by commenting or by adding new threads, but for the most part, the discussion proceeded on its own.
In general, the Web/E-Conference encouraged a wide range of contributions, from more philosophical and political observations on paradigm shifts and the political economy of international relations and development to intense discussions of methods, which included participants' sharing with others concrete "operationalization" tools and literature.
The thrust of the discussions tended to place community-based development and natural resource management in the foreground as the "ruling economic and social organization" principle, making communities the central actors in development. Some interesting cross-cutting issues emerged, such as the means of monitoring and evaluating SL approaches, the need to develop suitable indicators for capturing livelihood outcomes and the differentiated impact of SL approaches.
In comparing SL approaches, there was agreement that there were no substantial differences among the approaches being used by the different agencies. However, the discussion dealt extensively with the differences between SL and traditional approaches. In considering the holistic diagnostic/design approach of SLAs, it was felt that the DFID SL framework provided a road map for understanding a set of complex issues and problems related to sustainable livelihoods. What was not clear was whether new SL analytical skills helped solve the problems. There was discussion on how much analysis was sufficient and whether the need to be holistic could be equated with the need to "know everything". An important concern that emerged in the discussion was whether SL approaches really reached the poorest. No agreement was reached on this.
The discussion on operationalizing SL approaches focused on the need for multisectoral, decentralized planning, and how difficult this would be to implement. Some healthy scepticism was voiced about the value added by SL approaches in implementation, partly because to date there had been few concrete experiences with SL implementation from which one could learn. While acknowledging that SL approaches could provide an analytical framework and common language for understanding poverty, and thus provide a potentially effective means of focusing the policy-making process on the poor, the policy discussion emphasized that what needed to be addressed was not only the content of policy but the very process by which such policy was formulated. The discussion on institutions pointed out that the key to long-term institutional sustainability might well lie with the successful transformation of institutions and institutional interfaces, making them more "SL friendly". Other contributions pointed out that working through local institutions did not automatically lead to more equitable livelihood outcomes.
The discussions, rich and varied, to a reasonable degree did achieve the intended goal of establishing among the participants a broad understanding of terminology, definitions and concepts related to SL approaches, and they also set the stage for the discussions at the Forum by raising and sharply delineating issues. A more detailed summary of the issues discussed in the Web/E-Conference is included in Annex 5.
A web-based conference facility was used for the Web/E-Conference. This was a pilot system developed by FAO (WAICENT) to which a number of modifications were made to improve functionality and user-friendliness. Once the participants logged on to the website using their individually assigned user names and passwords, they were able to move freely among themes and threads, open and read the background documents and review papers, add new threads of discussion and comment on any of the threads. Some participants found it quite difficult to use the website, so a parallel e-mail-based discussion facility was set up that enabled these participants to receive all the materials and contributions every day in consolidated e-mail messages and to respond by e-mail. Care was also taken to ensure that these participants' e-mailed comments were posted on the website under their names and that the materials fed into the web were in turn posted through e-mail. Thus the web- and e-mail-based discussions proceeded in parallel for almost the entire period, providing participants with user-friendly options and access.
A summary of the major lessons learned on the technical aspects of operating/managing a web-based electronic conference, which would be of considerable benefit to those planning to organize similar conferences, is included as Annex 6.