International development is serious business, and the World Bank Group is a serious actor in that space.  So why did we start a conference on citizen engagement and accountable governments by giving participants permission to laugh? 

Because humor, done right, can shed light on contradictions and provoke meaningful conversations.

The Independent Evaluation Group (IEG) and the International Initiative on Impact Evaluation (3ie) jointly hosted this conference, and we wanted to create an environment in which participants felt free to share their experiences, disagree respectfully with the experts, and be fully engaged.  So, during our joint conference, right after the opening remarks, we launched into an unexpected activity.

What We Did

Before the conference, we worked with Pablo Suarez, Artist in Residence at the National University of Singapore, and Bob Mankoff, President of Cartoon Collections, to curate cartoons that could connect to the challenges and opportunities related to citizen engagement and government accountability. We placed an envelope with a printed cartoon on every chair in the conference room.  In addition, we had fourteen 5’ x 7’ cartoon posters printed and hung around the room.

On the day of the conference, as people came into the room, they were asked not to open the envelopes in the chairs. We began in usual fashion, opening remarks from Alison Evans, IEG’s Director-General, Evaluation, and from Manny Jimenez, 3ie’s Executive Director. Both speakers were excellent, and conference participants listened attentively.

And then something new happened.  In 10 seconds, the room changed from 150 polite listeners to 150 people laughing, talking, smiling, and turning around in their seats.  Why? Because we asked them to open their envelopes, reflect on the cartoon, and share one idea sparked by the cartoon with someone else in the room. 

It worked.  Our goal of having engaged participants was met--it took nearly a minute to pull their attention back to the front of the room to move on to the next session, and throughout the day participants asked questions, made comments, and engaged with people they didn’t know. 

Of course, all the credit cannot go to one humor-informed activity.  We designed the whole day to include opportunities for engagement. We even used humor again.

Before the lunch break, we asked participants to visit the cartoon posters around the room and write alternative captions related to our conference topic.  Those captions are a great repository of impressions about how citizens can be engaged and how governments demonstrate accountability. 

A Few Examples

The comments on this poster made me realize evaluators already know we need to do a better job communicating our data:


-I was intentionally vague so you would agree with me.
-Sometimes stories are better than data.
-How does data become information?
-How do we develop evidence translation skills?

Participants asked questions here that can inform improvements in our work:

-Why do we continue to repeat mistakes in public policy even in the era of evidence generation and use?
-What does voice do if no one is able to move?
-I'm raising the issue and you can find the solution.
-We humans feel the need to do things versus not.

Great insights as to when evidence is accepted and when it is not:

-How do we get value from data collected?
-Are we ready for what results tell us?
-Favorable results are accepted without question; adverse results: “They are not rigorous”
-Area for more research: how restricted civic space impacts citizen engagement.

The meaningful, technical conversations among participants during this conference confirm humor has a place in serious conversations. We will certainly add such activities to our event-design toolbox.

For your next event, consider whether humor can help you achieve your objective.  It certainly helped us achieve ours.

Find out more about the benefits of using humor by contacting Cartoon Collections, or by watching Pablo Suarez' recent TEDx Talk, Harnessing Humor for Humanitarian Work.