Networks and Virtual Communication

CZM project, EEA and Norway Gransts (Novo Panicharevo, Bulgaria, Workshop, 9 May 2009

Introduction

The direct cause and reason for this article is the ongoing Corona pandemic. It aims to discuss the implication of this for communication across societies, including between stakeholders in public sector, private sector, and civil society; and especially within civil society. The recent drastically changing parameters with their multiple synergy effects throughout societies, from the global level down to the community level (including the individual level), spells dramatic changes for patterns and processes of globalization. This article addresses part of the impacts on development cooperation. This involves priorities, goals, and means. With reference to the Logical Framework Analysis, it affects inputs, outputs, impacts, and outcomes.

The article addresses specifically the EEA and Norway Grants funding scheme, an international donor involved in development cooperation. There is a focus on civil society in two recipient countries, namely Lithuania and Poland. I hope this article will contribute to initiating a discussion on how to understand use networks given the emerging global processes of globalization.

The Context: Globalization

The overall context is globalization, which can be understood as “the process of interaction and integration among people, companies and governments worldwide”. Further, “globalization is primarily an economic process of interaction and integration that is associated with social and cultural aspects” (Wikipedia). While related, this is not the same as internationalization, which can be understood as “the process of increasing involvement of enterprises in international markets” (Wikipedia). Networking, broadly understood, but especially its virtual extension, should be understood as part and parcel of globalization.

Globalization is, however, changing fast as a consequence of the Corona pandemic:

  • Hyper-globalization is over, but this does, however, not apply to international trade and cooperation.
  • The power and authority of the nation state is increasing, which, in turn, points to limitations in how the market functions.
  • The new-liberalistic era appears to be over.
  • A new demarcation between public sector, on the one hand, and private sector and civil society, on the other hand, have to be established.
  • Future crises (incl. pandemics, climate change, and resistance against antibiotics) will increase the power of the nation state and its wish for control.
  • Increased power to the nation state challenges liberal freedoms. Safety and protection against dangers can become more important than personal and political freedom.

Networks and Networking, I: The Beginning

The word “network” has been in use since a long time. The term traditionally referred to physical structures. Only recently did the word, in the form of a new construction, namely “networking”, appear. It refers primarily to relations between people: (a) “network” refers to a structure or system of people and/or groups, and (b) “networking” refers to the operation of a network, in that it points to what is exchanged between the individuals and/or groups that constitute a network (Note 1). The word originally referred to relations between people who were in physical proximity, and were engaged in face-to-face interaction and exchange.

While working at the World Bank, I was engaged in establishing and managing a number of networks. They typically aimed to connect World Bank staff, on the one hand, with people and groups in developing and transition countries, on the other hand. The focus was on connecting people that worked on the same issues, and that were engaged in joint projects. While many World Bank staff members worked in physical proximity, the external members lived in a large number of countries. Workshops, seminars, and conferences often took place at the World Bank headquarters. For external members the communication and knowledge exchange relied on email, websites, and, in particular, on regular newsletters distributed via email. The networks and networking activities that I have created, managed, and/or worked on, include (listed in order of appearance, with institutional affiliation in parenthesis):

  • IWGIA – Indigenous peoples and development (International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs)

  • EASA Network on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples – Human rights and indigenous peoples (European Association of Social Anthropologists)

  • IPRNet – Intellectual property rights (World Bank)

  • IPNet – Indigenous peoples (World Bank)
  • CPRNet – Common property resource management (World Bank)

  • FishNet – Fisheries (World Bank)

  • ICZMNet – Integrated coastal zone management (World Bank)

  • Norwegian NGOs partnering on EEA and Norway Grants projects – networking these NGOs (CBNRM Networking, Norwegian Association for Adult Learning, Supras Limited)
  • CBNRM Net – Community-based natural resource management (initially World Bank, today based in Norway)

Most of these networks involve memberships, websites, events, and/or newsletters. Only one, CBNRM Net, is still active. The two main reasons for this are that: (a) I left the University of Zürich in 1993 to work for the World Bank, and (b) I left the World Bank in 2000 to move back to Norway. Both shifts of employment involved closing and leaving behind work responsibilities, including management of several networks, and taking on new job responsibilities. The networks CBNRM Net and "Norwegian NGOs partnering on EEA and Norway Grants projects" are presented below in the form of brief case studies.

Case Study I: CBNRM Net

CBNRM Net is, in every way, an example of changes in communication, the importance of public involvement, and the importance of a new mode of knowledge production, within the underlying context of globalization and availability of ICTs. More than that, CBNRM Net is an embodiment and integration of these very developmental tendencies and processes (Note 2).

Networks and Networking, II: From Internet / Email to Digitization

Digitization means use of new technologies in addition to the traditional ICTs, namely Internet and email. These new technologies include: video, cell phone, and multiple different social media platforms. It is still early days to safely conclude on advantages – and likely drawbacks with this shift for how effectively and efficiently networks and networking operate.

In the future the basis of how networking operates may be virtual networking complemented by face-to-face networking. The Corona pandemic will certainly contribute to this shift. CBNRM Net is set to focus increasingly on digitization in its communication strategy. Recent networking activities in the EEA and Norway Grants, specifically involving calls for projects in Latvia and Poland, provide instructive examples.

A good part of the funding that this grant scheme provides is targeted at civil society in several countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. A key element of the projects to be financed is that the implementing NGO is advised to find a partner NGO or organisation in one of the three donor countries. To help in the process of connecting interested NGOs in countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans with prospective partners in the donor countries, so-called matchmaking events are often organized in connection with specific project calls. These are typically large-scale events with a number of participants from several countries. The Corona pandemic has rendered such events impossible to organize. The alternative is to organize virtual events. One has already been organized for Poland, and at least one further event will take place in Latvia.

Case Study II: Norwegian NGOs Partnering on EEA and Norway Grants Projects

CBNRM Networking, together with my consulting firm Supras Limited, have been partner in projects funded by the EEA and Norway Grants since the beginning - 8 projects in Bulgaria, Latvia, Romania, and Slovenia (with several proposals currently being evaluated). A number of other Norwegian NGOs and organizations have likewise been partners in such projects over the years. Early on it became clear to several among us that the Norwegian partners would benefit from collaborating informally, including sharing experiences and learning from each other. Together with a colleague at the Norwegian Association for Adult Learning I created a website that would enable such informal networking and sharing, in effect, knowledge management and capacity development, among Norwegian partners in EEA and Norway Grants projects. We presented this networking idea and associated website in a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Oslo. We did not receive any feedback or comments, and this networking idea accordingly were not realized.

EEA and Norway Grants, Virtual Matchmaking Events

(1) Poland 23 April 2020

The Active Citizen Fund planned and implemented this virtual matchmaking event, with support form the Batory Foundation. I participated in this event. "Presentation of project ideas". This was, to my knowledge, the first ever such virtual event organized in the context of the EEA and Norway Grants, and it was my impression that both organizers and participants were in general satisfied with the outcome.

I shared the present article with the organizers and participants, and have received constructive feedback. I briefly presented my idea for a more organized approach to doing virtual matchmaking events (see section "A Project Idea" below). I have submitted detailed comments in a survey that the organizers sent out.

Following the matchmaking event, Active Citizen Fund sent out an evaluation form. Unfortunately, only 12 participants did so, and the organizer decided there were too few responses to make any conclusions. I have received the answers, and I agree with this assessment. I submitted answers myself, and thought that it might be helpful to share them in an abbreviated form (Table 1).

Table 1 - My evaluation of the matchmaking event on 23 April
QuestionsAnswers
What could have been organized in a different way in order ro (better) achieve the goal? I am not sure the selection of the three groups was optimal. This was a matchmaking event, and I accordingly joined group no. 3. I am not clear as to what the other groups focused on. The participants should have been organized in groups aiming to identify partners, for example, along lines of specific foci areas. Further, participants should have been placed in groups by the organizer to ensure there would be a more even number of people in each group.
What kind of further support in enabling bilateral cooperation in the future do you need?Alternatives: (1) More matchmaking events/workshops, (2) newsletter, (3) Facebook group dedicated to bilateral cooperation issues, (4) workshops, seminars on bilateral cooperation, (5) webinars, (6) mailing group, (7) individual consultation, and (8) other. My response: nos. (1), (4), (5), (6), and (8).
Answers under alternative no. 8:
(1) (a) several alternatives overlap, (b) selecting all would be overdoing it, (c) people have only so much time to use on this, (d) if people want to communicate with people from the own country, or also with people from other (donor) countries is missing, and (e) a website as an alternative is not mentioned;
(2) My personal choice is further virtual events, and
(3) Regarding videoconferencing software it would be useful to have an (outside) assessment of the alternatives, including an assessment, involving the users, of the best available program.
Which potential challenges in the bilateral cooperation have you noticed so far when it comes to the webinars/seminars/workshops/consultation's topic?The following comments applies largely to NGOs in recipient countries:
(1) NGOs are primarily interested in what they can get out of it, that is, a project, and not in contributing,
(2) I am surprised as to the lack knowledge of how to write proposals,
(3) A cottage industry has mushroomed in likely all recipient countries, where prospective applicants hire external consulting firms to prepare proposals,
(4) Use of external consultants means that applicants forego capacity development in proposal writing, 
(5) I am aghast as to the lack of knowledge about project work, including of each step in the project cycle, incl. preparation, appraisal, implementation & supervision/monitoring, completion, and evaluation,
(6) I am equally aghast that the EEA and Norway Grants, especially the Financial Mechanism Office, do not find this important (see items 3, 4, and 5),
(7) There is next to no communication among NGOs (civil society in general) within recipient countries (south-south communication). This means little sharing, no learning, and no knowledge management,

(8) There is no communication among NGOs (civil society in general) across recipient countries (south-south communication). This means no sharing, no learning, and no knowledge management,
(9) There is no communication among NGOs in donor countries. This means no sharing, no learning, and no knowledge management, and
(10) There is next to no communication between NGOs in donor countries and NGOs in recipient countries, aside from the focused and time-bound communication between project partners. This means no sharing, no learning, and no knowledge management.

(2) Latvia 15 May 2020

After having announced a physical matchmaking event which had to be cancelled because of the pandemic, the organizer, Active Citizen Fund, decided to organize a virtual event. This will, to my knowledge, be the second such virtual event organized in the context of the EEA and Norway Grants. I participated in this matchmaking event. I have shared with the organizers some of my experiences with participating in the earlier virtual event involving Poland.

I will share this blog article with organizers and participants, and hopefully be able to briefly present my idea for a more organized approach to doing virtual matchmaking events (see section "A Project Idea") below. Following this virtual event, I will post brief review comments here.

A Project Idea

Briefly, the goal would be to arrive at a more organized approach to doing virtual matchmaking events (and other relevant virtual events), in the context of the EEA and Norway Grants projects. We, that is CBNRM Networking (or Supras Limited, my consulting firm), would be interested in identifying interested NGOs in Latvia and Poland possibly civil society umbrella organizations that we can partner with on such project proposals. Civil society organizations elsewhere in Eastern Europe and the Balkans might be interested in this project idea. A more structured approach to organizing such events should ideally take place within an informal (or more formalized), national network of likeminded NGOs. We would contribute our vast experience in international networking operations and projects, covering virtual means of communicating, sharing, and knowledge management (see the examples of networks above).

The short-term goal with these projects would be to provide capacity development and training to NGOs on how to do constructive and efficient networking (domestically and internationally), with an emphasis on how to balance the use of traditional physical networking and virtual networking. Furthermore, as for virtual networking, the training would cover, among others, video conferencing and use of dedicated social/media business platforms. Finally, the training would address information management, specifically knowledge management.

I understand these two virtual matchmaking events as unique first opportunities to evaluate the use and role of virtual networking in practice. I have invited the organizers of these events to share their experiences, and asked them for advice when it comes to planning such virtual-cum-physical networks, initially and later across the region.

Conclusions: The Future of Networks and Communication

Preliminary Assessment on Networks as Means for Communication

The overall context for CBNRM, and accordingly for CBNRM Net, is globalization. That is, CBNRM Net is understood as presenting new sets of tools – or existing tools packaged in a new / different way – for natural resource and CBNRM management in the contemporary context of globalization. This raises the following important question: what kind of criteria can be identified for networks to function as such a tool? The following are some issues that should be considered in this connection:

  1. The term and idea of “network” is often understood in a limited way. As a general rule, it is understood largely as a horizontal – seldom as a vertical – integration of stakeholders. In either case, the coverage is further limited by it applying to only specific categories of stakeholders, defined either in terms of their specific interests and/or responsibilities (e.g., researchers), or by their relationship to each other (employed in a specific project, or working within a specific sector). The idea of networks is most dynamic and productive when it manages to, first, integrate a multitude of stakeholders, and, second, do so both along vertical and horizontal societal axes.
  2. There is a tendency to understand networks as a tool in connection with specific types of foci and types of stakeholders. This is usually limited to include civil society in general, and to research-oriented agendas.
  3. Networks have optimal relevance when they span the public sector, the private (commercial) sector, and civil society.
  4. The problem with lack of communication is by many addressed at the macro-level (the country level and beyond), or primarily there. The macro-level is understood to be a bottleneck, and is given much attention. Following an alternative rationale, if we manage to make the micro-level work, the macro-level will follow. The most important thing the macro-level can contribute to facilitate changes at the micro-level is possibly legal reform.
  5. The communication strategy of networks, specifically decisions on the type of ICTs to use where and when and for/with whom and what purpose, should follow from a needs assessment that differentiates and connects needs with available resources, goals, tools, and means of communication.
  6. ICTs are mostly overused and misunderstood. Use of the Internet needs to be balanced with other means of communication. The goal should be a broad communication strategy that reach all stakeholders, and is relevant to all.
  7. The present-day use of the Internet largely builds upon, as well as reinforces, a traditional North-South axis of communication.
  8. Web sites have official and ideal purposes. They also have less obvious or declared purposes. One of them is to inform stakeholders in the North about what the network does. The aim is often to attract resources, especially funding. Even when the overt aim with web sites is to communicate with and engage local stakeholders they often fail. The rationale is that once information is placed on a web site it is considered as published. These are two examples of traditional North-South communication.
  9. There are huge benefits to be reaped in increased communication established along networks that span the traditional lines of division – in terms of time use, results, and economics.
  10. Traditional thinking, partly based on traditional lines of division between subject areas, together with a proprietary attitude towards knowledge, is the biggest obstacle to increased networking. Problems like language and culture are, surprisingly, of less importance.
  11. Traditional networks, specifically those relying on web-based communication strategies, focus on disseminating knowledge to members, staff, and/or subscribers. Such top-down approaches are fundamentally one-way monologues, and are less likely to succeed.
  12. The best, most active, and functional networks are those that evolve from the bottom-up, and that gradually organize, formalize, and acquire funding.
  13. In the not too distant future networks, specifically those that connect communities of practice, will become key producers of development cooperation relevant knowledge.

Some Arguments for Establishing Civil Society Networks

  1. These virtual matchmaking events should be evaluated as learning and knowledge management events. This evaluation should feed into future such events.
  2. Networking within civil society, between civil society in different recipient countries, and between civil society in donor countries and recipient countries constitute equally relevant arenas for communication.
  3. Virtual communication can become an important element in an overall strategy to rebuild and reconstitute societies.
  4. For this to happen civil society needs to be crucially involved, at the same level with the public sector and the private sector.
  5. Civil society will need to do this correct, and in cooperation and synergy with likeminded initiatives.
  6. All of us are operating in a new environment in the midst of the global Corona outbreak. Our operating models, our programs and services, and our fundraising may all need to pivot as we address this new reality.
  7. Finally, civil society might in negotiating powerful stakeholders in the public sector as well as internationally, and the common power play need a little luck to succeed ...

Lars T Soeftestad


Notes
(1) See Devblog article "Networks and networking" (Note 4).
(2) See Devblog article "CBNRM Net" (Note 4).
(3) Image credit: Supras Limited (Norway and Bulgaria). About: A project on management of Natura 2000 sites, with funding from EEA and Norway Grants, workshop for project staff (Novi Panicharevo, Bulgaria, 9 May 2009).
(4) Relevant Devblog articles: (1) CBNRM Net, at: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/cbnrm-net, (2) Networks and networking, at: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/networks-and-networking
(5) Permalink: https://www.devblog.no/en/article/networks-and-virtual-communication
(6) This article was published 18 April 2020. It was revised 15 May 2020.

Sources, Documents
Soeftestad, Lars. "CBNRM Net." Devblog, 13 August 2019, at: https://www.devblog.no
Soeftestad, Lars. "Networks and networking." Devblog, 13 May 2020, https://www.devblog.no
Wikipedia. "Globalization", at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Globalization

Sources, Websites
CBNRM Networking, at: https://www.cbnrm.org/
EEA and Norway Grants, at: https://eeagrants.org/

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