Written by John Lillywhite
“Communications for Empowerment” – so what exactly does that mean? Marty Neumeier may be the author of the ‘Brand Gap’, but you do realize that no one out here in Jordan knows that right? It’s too risky doing a new media and knowledge sharing forum right now: marketing budgets have been slashed, no one has any money, and frankly the kingdom isn’t ready for it. Why don’t you wait three or four years?
As a former employee of Amandla I got to witness firsthand the difficulties faced by start-ups in Amman, and more generally the obstacles sometimes faced by those who are simply passionate about doing something new. The ‘Amandla Forum’, which took place in the first week of May at the Kempinski Hotel Dead Sea, was being planned for in an office in Sweifieh over 6 months ago. The concept was bold but simple – to bring communications experts from across the world to the Middle East to train and network with regional institutions, entrepreneurs and all those broadly affected by the web 2.0, or ‘new media’.
Amandla Forum was originally intended to take place in Dubai – a prospect the financial meltdown in November quickly ruled out. I remember the discussion we had in the office that week. Would people in Jordan appreciate an event like this? Would people be prepared to pay the $500 participation fee, even if it was a fraction of the cost for similar events? At first opinions varied, but soon we all began rooting for the underdog: based on my personal experiences of the city, Amman deserved the Forum even if it wasn’t sure it wanted it.
Anxiety soon turned into excitement. The CEO of Amandla, Ehab Shanti, had somehow sweet talked people like Thomas Gensemer from Blue State Digital, the people behind Obama’s internet campaign, as well David Nasser from the ‘wallmart watch’ initiative into speaking. Meanwhile personalities like Nadine Toukan from UrdunMubdi, Laith Zraikat from Jeeran, or Yousef Tuqan from Flip would take part in panel discussions. Perhaps not entirely unreasonably, Amandla hoped sponsors to come flowing in, or at the least be forthcoming. After all, look what Arab Net achieved?
A month before Amandla Forum was due to take place sponsorship remained an issue, and people complained via facebook and twitter that tickets were simply too expensive. There were dark mumblings here and there as to whether it would even go ahead at all.
But it did. Between 4-6th May respected communicators from America and the Middle East, journalists like Bill Orme or social media enthusiasts like 7iber, listened and brainstormed together in one place – Jordan. Participants included delegations from across the region, from government, seemingly every office of the UN, the Jordan River Foundation, the private sector, entrepreneurs and many who clearly had ideas they were hoping the forum might help refine. They not only got to meet the speakers, they got to meet each other.
It’s true the Forum might have needed some polish here and there. We made mistakes along the way. But no one can deny that thesimple act of bringing such people to the same place at the same time was a massive achievement: speaker’s like Marty Neumeier had never visited the Middle East, let along Jordan. A 7iber workshop saw panel moderator Rania Atalla dancing around the room with a balloon, while other workshops looked at CSR, Media Development, or the difference between branding, marketing, PR and advertising. During the panel discussion companies such as Yahoo, Ikoo, MediaMe, Bayt and Development Works exchanged ideas, anecdotes, and thoughts on some of the challenges facing communication in the region.
Finally, all the talk Jordan ‘not being ready’ or sophisticated enough for an event of this kind proved deeply misled. Her Highness Princess Rym Ali, the founder of the Jordan Media Institute, attended the event. In addition to a host of strategic media sponsors, Yahoo, Royal Jordanian and the Kempinski Hotel itself all provided invaluable assistance.
So ‘Amandla Forum’ has been a bit of a journey. It will be interesting to see how the relationships and ideas forged over the course of the two days blossom. In my opinion this will not be a question of ‘if’, but rather of ‘when’ and ‘how’. By chance I bumped into Thomas Gensemer at a launch party at Foresight32 gallery, the night the Forum had ended. ‘We could be anywhere’ he quipped, looking around the revamped terrace café, ‘I mean this could be New York!’
Indeed it could… if with a particular local or Jordanian element, which after all was what Amandla Forum was all about.