Photo credit: R. Gibson
Action and learning in an emerging network
by Terry Gibson May 2011

Networks, by definition, are shaped by their members. They are often started by individuals or a founding group who have some vision and purpose in doing so. However, it is in the nature of a network that its development is unpredictable – unless it is so tightly controlled by its founders that it is effectively not a network at all.

At a workshop in Delhi in March 2008, the newly formed ‘Global Network for Disaster Reduction’[1] defined its vision and purpose. In the short period since that meeting the network has grown rapidly. It has also undertaken a major collaborative project – ‘Views from the Frontline’ – and has also conducted a ‘learning review’ of its initial activities. In January 2010 some 80 members of the network met in London to discuss this review and to make plans for the future. Had the network’s structure and goals evolved and changed? Had its activities led to a changed understanding of how it could work effectively?

This article outlines how shared action among network members has led to substantial commitment and rapid growth, suggesting that applying the ‘praxis’ model – shared action and reflection – can be a powerful engine for network building, action and learning.

Why the Global Network for Disaster Reduction?

The Global Network’s area of concern is Disaster Risk Reduction. Many of those who would become its founding members were present at the UN World Conference on Disaster Reduction in Kobe, Japan, in 2005, which established the present ten-year plan of action on Disaster Risk Reduction (the Hyogo Framework). They were there as representatives of civil society organisations, to observe and lobby on behalf of at-risk communities around the world. An underlying concern of these civil society representatives was that high-level policy statements would not translate into effective implementation and change on the frontline of DRR, where communities vulnerable to disasters live and work. In expressing this concern they had history on their side, as the review of the preceding ten-year programme, the Yokahama Strategy for Natural Disasters, had concluded that intentions still needed to be turned into action. It became clear that, by working together, they could increase their effectiveness in advocacy and campaigning. As a result, discussions and meetings over the following two years led to agreement to form the Global Network for Disaster Reduction.

At the Delhi workshop in 2008 the steering committee made use of the ‘network functions approach’, a method for auditing a network and refining its activities to match its functions.[2] While these functions helped to focus the thinking of the group as they deliberated on the direction and purpose of the new network, the objectives ultimately agreed did not fit neatly under any particular function.

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The objectives seemed to have a strong action focus to them, with the implication of shared action, rather than support for the actions of individual members. This contrasts with many other networks, which primarily offer shared resources and expertise which their members use in their own individual work programmes.

Views from the Frontline: a participative network action

The Views from the Frontline project represents a major collaborative effort between network members. The idea was already on the table at the Delhi workshop. It reflected the stated concern of the network to press for effective implementation, married to the observation that the monitoring processes built into the newly established Hyogo Framework were weak. In line with the experiences of another group involved in a similar monitoring process, the Civil Society Index, Views from the Frontline was to be a survey of perceptions and human impact, rather than of technical measures of progress.

The idea was simple in principle, but challenging in practice. It demanded mobilising participating organisations in a broad sweep of countries and regions vulnerable to disaster, training them in a survey methodology and securing thousands of responses to surveys from people in vulnerable communities. This had to be achieved within a timeframe of just over one year, as the biennial UN Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, at which the progress of the framework would be discussed, was scheduled to take place in June 2009.

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The focus here is on how this major action related to the Global Network’s founding objectives, and what it showed about the development of networks. I took on the role of project manager for the programme with some experience of Wenger’s ‘communities of practice’ model in corporate and NGO settings.[3] The principles of community-building, establishing communication and shared learning and building a repository of knowledge seemed particularly relevant to the Global Network’s third and fourth objectives around knowledge and capacity-building. Therefore, alongside the intense work on the survey process, I emphasised communications and developed a website with collaborative tools such as blogs, discussion groups and resource libraries. However, repeated attempts to engage members in these mechanisms, to create dialogue between them and to establish shared learning were generally unsuccessful. When I reported on progress at the January 2010 review meeting, members agreed that the network was ‘hub and spoke’ – with most of its communication radiating from the secretariat to members and back – rather than a ‘cat’s cradle’  – the kind of rich communication between network members which is typical of a community of practice. It was becoming clear that the Global Network did not conform to the ‘communities of practice’ model.

At the same time, progress on the first two objectives – concerning influence on policy formulation and implementation – seemed striking. Compared with communities of practice I had been involved with previously, the growth rate of the network and the commitment of its members was dramatic. The practical goal of Views from the Frontline was achieved and exceeded. Data from the surveys was presented at the UN Global Platform in 2009, and the work had a clear impact at the institutional level. According to Margareta Wahlstrom, Assistant Secretary for Disaster Reduction at the UN: ‘Views from the Frontline shifted the agenda at GP-DRR 2009 towards a focus on execution of the Hyogo Framework at the local level’.

This was exactly in line with the goals of the network. More recent discussions within the UN system show that there has been a marked shift in emphasis towards engagement and implementation at the local level. The role of Views from the Frontline in achieving this shift has been acknowledged in ISDR’s Mid-Term Review of the Hyogo Framework.[4]

Action and reflection

The institutional impact of Views from the Frontline can be seen as an output impact. However, network members also identified important process impacts which resulted from the activity itself and related to the goal of learning implied by the network’s third and fourth objectives. These process impacts occurred on two levels: locally, with individual network members, and globally, in relation to the network as a whole. In both cases they involved cycles of action and reflection.

Locally, members reported that the survey and consultation process had led to new opportunities, new dialogue and new partnerships. One network member in Peru said that ‘Views from the Frontline has let us meet with and get to know different actors in our area, even with people that it was difficult to get access to before’. This process impact extends further. Dialogue leads to partnership and this creates political heft at the local level which can influence the national level. Another network member ascribed the formation of a national platform for disaster reduction in Afghanistan in February 2010 in part to the dialogue resulting from the Views from the Frontline process. In this way, entities that had not previously interacted and which were often suspicious of each other formed partnerships and collaborations which in turn gave them more influence with regional and national governments.

At the level of the network itself, members recognised that reflecting on the Views from the Frontline project changed their understanding of the network. It had become clear that it was not a learning network in the sense of a community of practice, but an action network which gained its energy and learning from action and from reflecting on that action – a  community of praxis, in other words.[5]

What have the last two years taught us?

Shared action has led to substantial commitment and rapid growth (the current iteration of Views from the Frontline is likely to involve twice as many countries as the first one), suggesting that applying the praxis model – shared action and reflection – can be a powerful engine for network building, action and learning. The contrasts between communities of practice and communities of praxis are summed up in Table 1.

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The initial difficulties the Global Network experienced in promoting and sharing learning seem to reflect the fact that the network has a different structure to that of a ‘community of practice’, and has objectives focused on joint, rather than individual, action. Through a process of collaborative action and reflection on the learning from that action, the network has become an action-oriented learning community, a ‘community of praxis’.

 

Terry Gibson is Project Manager for the Global Network for Disaster Reduction.

 


[1] The full name is the Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction.

[2] The typology of functions includes ‘Community-building’, ‘Filtering’, ‘Amplifying’, ‘Learning and Facilitating’, ‘Investing and Providing’ and ‘Convening’. See Ben Ramalingam, Enrique Mendizabal and Ed Schenkenberg van Mierop, Strengthening Humanitarian Networks, ODI Background Note, 2008.

[3] Etienne Wenger, Richard Mcdermott and William Snyder, Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[4] ‘Hyogo Framework for Action 2005–2015 Mid-Term Review’, http://www.preventionweb.net/english/professional/publications/v.php?id=18197 29/03/11.

[5] The principle of ‘praxis’ is the idea that learning that is useful in securing change is based on communities going through cycles of action and reflection. It was at the heart of the thinking of Paulo Freire, who provided the foundation for participative learning in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). The term ‘community of praxis’ as used here is the author’s.

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