28 February 2024

Are you gonna go my way? How do we decide where to take the Harm Reduction International conference?

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Where we go depends on bids we receive from local partners. We decide based on a list of criteria that balances the practicalities with purpose.

Convening the Movement

By Lucy O’Hare and Maddie O’Hare

Every two years, Harm Reduction International (HRI) convenes more than 1,000 delegates from over 80 countries at our conference. The event is hosted in a different city every time and has been held in almost every region of the world since our very first conference in Liverpool in 1990.  

Recent editions of the conference have been held in Kuala Lumpur, Montreal, Porto and Melbourne. We will soon announce where the 2025 edition of the conference will take place. But how do we decide where to take the conference? 

The process is simple: harm reduction organisations, sometimes in collaboration with convention bureaux, submit brief expressions of interest in hosting the conference in their city. HRI selects a longlist of cities to submit fuller bids and we ask applicants to explain the following in their bids:  

  • What is the importance of convening the harm reduction community in your city? 
  • What interesting things are happening in your region? This includes developments in the world of harm reduction and drug policy, as well as legal and political changes that may impact drug laws and policies. 
  • What is the scope for a lasting legacy on the local/regional/national level?  
  • What can our delegates learn from your region? 
  • Would we be able to offer delegates the full gamut of harm reduction services? For example, are needle and syringe programmes and opioid agonist therapy available for residents and visitors? Can we distribute crack pipes and naloxone at the conference? 

How we decide

As a next step, HRI’s conference team prepares indicative budgets, risk assessments and a positive case for each city and, together with our senior management team and board, we decide where we will take the conference. 

The worst part of the whole process is telling unsuccessful bidders that they haven’t been awarded the conference, but the best is the reaction of the winning city! 

Once a decision has been made, we observe and unpack – settle in, get a feel for the country and the region, learn about the landscape, remember why we are here. Throughout the process, we ask ourselves: what’s our purpose?  

We reconnect with existing allies and look for new. We learn the history of the host country and remind ourselves of the rich history of our gathering. HRI conferences have helped to put harm reduction on the map and to coordinate advances, innovations, evidence, and advocacy in the fields of harm reduction and drug policy for more than three decades. The conference provides a dynamic forum to share the latest research and discussions and attracts a diverse group of delegates and speakers including front-line health workers, academics, researchers, policy makers, politicians, UN representatives, people who use drugs, sex workers and people working in the criminal legal system.  

Once we receive the bids from local partners, HRI carefully considers the proposals and visits the shortlisted cities. The actual decision is based on a list of criteria that balances the practicalities of hosting a conference – the venue, transport, costs – with the meaningful stuff.  We look at whether there are local laws that pose specific additional risks to our delegates, what delegates coming from around the world can learn from the host city, what lasting impact hosting the conference in a city can have and whether HRI turning up with over a thousand friends would be welcomed! 

We endeavour to be power-literate: Where can we help? Where should we tread lightly? Where is our influence useful, and where should we pull back? How can we advance our commitment to be actively anti-racist? 

One thing that we hope we can all do as gatherers is to be curious, be observant, and use this brief moment of time that we all have together to create lasting change.  

Click here to see which city will host HR25! 


Lucy O’Hare and Maddie O’Hare are HRI’s Conference Directors. 

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