Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Networks here & there…. networks everywhere!

A few more years and NGO’s working on individual development projects might have become obsolete. Just take a quick look in any NGO’s strategic plan and you will notice that ‘Networks’ and ‘Strategic Alliances’ and ‘Linking and Learning’ are presented as today’s development answers.  Although it would be interesting to scrutinize this assumption, also I have come to accept that networks are an appropriate way to tackle societal issues in a rapidly changing world. Currently I am supporting the NGO where I work in setting up a network on land rights and in our most recent round of discussion I asked my Junior Expert colleagues around the globe for some tips & tricks.
Considering that most of us in the discussion deals in one way or another with networks, confirmed it is in fact a current development fashion. But as one of us rightly pointed out  ’In general I think the word 'network' in the context of development projects is a container concept that is easily used and often not understood…. there is a limitless amount of varieties in the range of formal - informal, size, type of members, goals’. Even in our small group the diversity in the forms and objectives of the networks we deal with was large, varying from group of 'community journalists' to a global network of actors dedicated to the Christian mission of ‘doing good’.  But despite differences from our discussion it is possible to pinpoint several factors that any kind of network requires for effective and sustainable functioning. Now please let me present, in the name of ‘sharing and learning’, my impressions of the virtual discussions I had with my colleague 'development advisors'. 

Core elements & conditions to start a network
First remarkable thing in the discussion was that the main question itself created counter questions. As some of us suggested it is better not to talk about setting up a network’ as networks should ideally evolve naturally when several people feel the urge to link up and cooperate around an issue. It is therefore preferable to take existing relations as a starting point and to expand slowly to other stakeholders and different levels. But what if these relations do not yet exists while you see the added value of exchange and cooperation? In such situation people could be brought together through events and joint actions to examine the potential to evolve as a network. When doing so the facilitator plays a key role to link and ’to create opportunities for a joint discovery path’ before getting people on board. This implies that she or he must study the people, their institutions, their interests and power relations, to plan and prepare the joint events carefully and to give follow up to the outcomes of these events. Once people are on board it is time to define focused objectives, to discuss different contributions and to align expectations. At this initial stage it is crucial that the facilitator ensures there is time and space to answer questions like; what kind of network do we want to become; formal or informal? To what extent do we want to cooperate? Do we consider for instance exchange of knowledge as sufficient or should we take a step further by joining forces in research, lobby and advocacy? If so, which topics and through which activities? What institutional rules and regulations are needed for proper functioning? How do we fund network activities and what financial mechanisms? While coordinating the dialogue on these questions, the facilitator should ensure progress and prevent that members end up in endless discussions. Especially the importance of starting to undertake actions, both at the initial phase as afterwards, can not be overstated because for every network’s sustainability it is crucial to combine learning with action to have continuous results and the added value….People are only willing to invest time and resources if they see visible results.
It has been concluded many times before, hence it is not surprising that also in our experience proper coordination and leadership proves to be indispensable. Everyone will be interested, but nothing happens if no one takes the lead. Leadership could be either in the form of an institutionalized secretary, a project unit, steering committee, working group or simply an assigned person….. to take initiative, coordinate and to connect to existing larger initiatives and potential funds.

Above all, we all clearly agreed that at the core of any successful network lie passion, chemistry and openness . In general what I notice here is that a network (and any kind of cooperation) really functions around personal relationships, instead of institutional common interest. Beyond the curtain of organizations and institutional interests lie the people, who can make it or break it. In a way you could say that the passion people share to fight for a common cause is the heart, and cordial relations the heartbeat of a network. Without a heart and heartbeat your network will not sustain life.

Author:  Leyla Ozay,  e-mail.  l.ozay@hotmail.com