Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Session Report: Leveraging Connections Among Networks by Nadejda Loumbeva

Leveraging Connections Among Networks
Facilitator - Nadejda Loumbeva
Day 2 at 13.45 in Espace Gabon

15 people (excluding the facilitator) participated in the session. 3 of those were presenters. We started off with describing the initiatives (ESCORENA network, e-Agriculture network, IMAWESA network). Then we moved onto a discussion. In the process of this, we used some of the computer and projector to show the websites of the featured networks.

Challenges to the process were:

  • All three initiatives were incredibly complex and we had to struggle with ensuring these are being shared concisely and ''to-the-point'', in ways that encourage people to see linkages among them and discuss.
  • Some of the presenters were taking a long time giving the background to their initiative. I had to work with them so that they focus more on the mechanisms underlying the network. It was a question of reinforcing them whenever they talked about mechanisms and gently stopping them when they would give away details that were (in my opinion!) distracting the discussion.
  • The Espace Gabon room is difficult in terms of 1. having a few flip chart sheets written on at one and the same time (there is no where to put them but stick them to one of the walls) and 2. having all people see those sheets (all would sit in an oval around a big table and so some people would always have their backs on them). This was making difficult the synergy between notes I would take on these sheets (one for each network and a fourth one for challenges and lessons learnt) and the actual discussion. I guess it would have been good to enable the session in a way that is more holistic (i.e., people seeing all notes, and making connections among them whilst participating) however I do not think this worked.

Summary of some of the discussion:

IMAWESA network
This initiative aims to influence policies, attitudes and investment priorities in agricultural water management. This is intended to happen via different stakeholders (ministries and other public institutions, people on the ground, researchers) being brought together in the context of process documentation, dialogue, learning assessments, capacity building initiatives, peer reviews, amongst others. Such would create linkages between different stakeholders in agricultural water management to encourage and build upon. A few different organisations have joined in support of the initiative, one of which is IFAD. The initiative currently spans 23 countries. It has no online platform to more interactively connect the participating stakeholders and leverage their connections, however it is understood this may need to change in the near future.

ESCORENA network
This network was established in 1974. ESCORENA is a network of 14 other networks, each of which is focused on researching and raising a particular crop (i.e., walnut network, flax and other bast plants network, olive network) or animal (i.e., buffalo network). The networks that are members of ESCORENA are all Europe-based but beginning to expand to other regions as well, in addition to being thematically focused quite specifically. The purpose of ESCORENA is to enable linkages among the participating networks that would be in terms of joint projects, sharing of knowledge, etc., in ways that add to these networks. It is also to enable a bigger body of research and agricultural knowledge to be continuously developed that would in itself represent an interest to outside parties (such as the European Commission). A challenge behind making the network work has been the lack of consistent and appropriate communication among all members (so far, this has been mostly during face-to-face meetings with an otherwise permanent email-based contact being maintained via a Coordination Centre) . The intention is to overcome this via an ESCORENA online platform (already created).

The purpose of the e-agriculture network is to bring forward the use of ICT in rural development and food security and enable a dialogue on this within and among different groups. The network was officially launched in September 2007 by a few co-sponsoring organisations who believed in the importance of this issue. Individuals are able to join the network via the network's online platform. So far, there are about 4300 people from 154 countries who have joined the network. A challenge has been to keep the focus of the network clear, while at the same time meeting the variety of interests of those who are part of it. A critical part of the community is having face-to-face meetings (as part of larger events organized by other organizations), as well as the intention to support the establishment of regional e-agriculture communities in order to keep local issues and interests synchronized. In the meantime, would remain a global platform. The network frequently engages in on-line discussions and e-forums on issues related to ICT in agriculture. The demand for what topics to dialogue on comes from the network itself, and when necessary, expertise is brought in from outside the network. Some of this can lead to in-country interventions where local expertise is brought to the service of a local problem through the action of the network.

  • Lack of continued and appropriate funding may hurdle any network and especially initiatives as complex as the ones part of this session; financial support, as well as other in terms of coordination and facilitation, are crucial.
  • In some cases, it may be good to get people to give something back to the community in return for learning and thus ensure there is continued practical support underlying the network.
  • Sometimes network membership may grow way too quickly (when the network is open to everyone) and difficult to keep in synchrony and synergy; this may be overcome by keeping a good balance between supporting demand from within the network and providing some guidance and formats for different network activities.
  • In other cases, despite there being many members to a network, there may not be involvement and participation in the network; in such cases leveraging the use of web platforms may be helpful.
  • Is it possible to and how can we measure impact of such initiatives? the discussion seemed to agree on using secondary rather than primary indicators for impact, such as referencing the network in publications and other research centre activities.
  • How can we monitor and evaluate? it would be better to focus on monitoring and evaluating the process underlying the network rather than its thematic focus and content; this would be more indicative of whether and how the network is a healthy environment for collaborative learning.
  • A question on the importance of substance was raised, to pinpoint the importance of a clear purpose driving complex networking initiatives such as the ones featured in the session; unless there is a clear purpose to drive the dialogue, there is the danger of the network becoming a dry framework with no real substance to it.

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