The Rhodes Forum – shaping policy through dialogue

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Every year, in early autumn, people from diverse walks of life descend on the Greek island of Rhodes.

This year’s event, held 5-6 October, is titled Making Multilateralism Work: Enhancing Dialogue on Peace, Security, and Development. And the line-up of special guests this year looks impressive: including Senior Fellow at the US Institute of Peace Robin Wright, Prime Minister of Guinea Ibrahima Kassory Fofana, deputy ministers from Greece, Russia, and Iran, senior policy makers from the OECD, a constellation of ambassadors, and former Israeli President Ehud Olmert.

Many of the high-profile guests attending this year are coming for the special focus on Africa – expressed in a dedicated Summit ‘Engaging Africa in Dialogue: Towards a Harmonious Development of the Continent’, and reflected in the discussion makeup and panel topics throughout the event.

Serving and former politicians, ministers, and state officials are joined by respected academics and researchers, economists and business people, NGO representatives and volunteers, and of course, members of  broadcast, print, and online media.

That small island forms the stage for an event that, when it first began, was seen as little more than a fringe event, gathering individuals of uncertain standing and unclear intent. Over the years, however, it has made a name for itself as one of the world’s leading platforms for open dialogue between people from radically different backgrounds and world-views. But that is not what makes it unique.

The Rhodes Forum stands out for the dedication of its focus on developing entirely new approaches and solutions to current problems, and to identifying issues before they escalate. The global financial crisis and Europe’s refugee crisis were two major issues that the Rhodes Forum identified as priorities before either became standard headlines in the media or much-chewed-over talking points.

As the event has grown since its first edition in 2003, media interest has also grown. Some media reports have painted it as an almost ‘cultish’ gathering of traditionalists, set on turning back the clock. Others suggest that those in attendance are doing the bidding of any one of a number of states – seeking through the forum to cultivate allies and expand influence.

The reality, as attested to by attendees over the years, is very different. The Rhodes Forum is a one-of-a-kind event. It draws participants at a very senior level year after year. It is the kind of event that policy makers and decision-makers find a useful add-on to their regular circuit of briefings, meetings, or conferences.

It is held on Rhodes, which provides an ideal atmosphere and helps participants gain the right distance from the emotive issues they are addressing, and so helps foster an environment conducive to finding solutions, not apportioning blame.

Other than offering a unique platform for these people to come together and network and brainstorm, each year the Rhodes Forum aims to produce actionable policy recommendations that emerge from the debate as a concrete deliverable and real result. It will be interesting to see what this year’s lineup produces!