|Journal of the Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies - Volume 1, Number 3 (HABITAT, 1991, 46 p.)|
A. Conceptual framework
Networks are meant to link together several institutions with the same or similar areas of activities from different countries for the purpose of sharing experience, information and expertise.
Networking is an important strategy for cooperation among countries, especially in those areas where expertise and physical resources are scarce. It has a catalytic role for strengthening the capabilities of member institutions and is a means for institutionalizing contacts among professionals and scientists to exchange technological and scientific research innovations. Obviously, a network must have a coordinating body (central focal point) so as to be able to function meaningfully and effectively. However, a satisfactory performance and sustainable commitment on the part of the participating institutions is essential to guarantee the success of a network.
Advantages of networking systems
One of the most important advantages of the networking approach is its cost effectiveness. The essence of a network is to link existing functional institutions to enhance their individual and collective performances with modest financial allocations. In fact, by the establishment of sound management and through the coordinating arrangements done by the central focal point, the flow of information, exchange of expertise, organization of joint research activities and workshops etc. could be carried out more efficiently than any other type of bilateral arrangement. A critical requirement, however, is the existence of good communication links in the geographical area covered by the network. Where such links are guaranteed, a network can prove to be a mode of regional cooperation with encouragingly positive cost-benefit results.
In addition to the cost advantages mentioned above, networks have other characteristics which make their existence useful and attractive. For example, those member institutions which may be better endowed in terms of expertise and facilities may become a source of inspiration and technology transfer to less fortunate members. They may indeed develop into centres of excellence which should help upgrade other institutions in the network. The political problems of national perspectives which often confuse member countries for regional cooperation may, thus, be absent or considerably mitigated in networks.
Another advantage that networks demonstrate is their flexibility which makes it possible to tailor the volume and intensity of network programme activities to the resources available to the network. The frequency of staff exchange, and organization of seminars/workshops, for example, can be increased when funding is favourable and reduced under budgetary constraints. However, such variations, if kept within reasonable limits, should not unduly destroy its effectiveness. If one institution charged with the responsibility to provide a service within the network, e.g., mount a training programme or lead a research project, is for any reason unable to discharge the associated functions effectively, the assignment could be transferred to another member institution without unduly disrupting the cohesion of the network. Moreover, since the institutions are spread geographically, in contrast to the expertise and facilities available to a centralized organization, it is also relatively easy to arrange network research and training activities on a national, subregional or regional basis. Thus, a network could play a crucial role in fostering regional cooperation and strengthening national technological capacities through such cooperation.
Mechanism for establishing a network
One of the best tried and accepted modalities for establishing a network is through involvement of an international organization. International involvement in the initial stages of the establishment of a network is particularly advantageous, as it provides the best links, can act as the central coordinating body and can facilitate funding of the network activities, at least for a reasonable, but not for an unlimited period. Over the past one or two decades, a number of networks in various regions and areas of science and technology have been established through international assistance and involvement, having had, at least, one common objective, that is: to facilitate regional cooperation and strengthen the technological capacities of individual countries participating in the network activities.
From a socio-political point of view, also, the presence of an international body in the activities of a network and, in particular, when the achievements of a network lead to an effective transfer of technology from one country to another, it has wider acceptability, because it can support the process of technology transfer and can safeguard/protect the interests of the recipient countries. However, readiness and commitment of the participating countries for cooperation is a pre-requisite to a successful achievement of a network's goals, without which any effort made by national, regional or international communities would remain obsolete and meaningless.
With regard to the capacity of a network to carry on networking activities after the termination or reduction of international support, it is again up to governments and decision-makers of every country to take the necessary measures to maintain the contacts and continue the already established cooperation. Thus, participating countries, bearing in mind the important role that networks play in the technological advancement of their countries, should endeavour to sustain networking links by allocating resources which are needed for the execution of planned activities.
B. Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies
One reason why most African countries have not been able to reach the level of self-sufficiency in the process of developing local building materials is that they are limited in their technological capacity to tackle the problems involved. Fortunately, for most building materials, including innovations, there are already proven technologies in both developing and industrialized countries. The crux of the problem, then, is how to transfer technologies effectively to the countries in need. For most developing countries at the receiving end of building-materials technologies, the process of technology transfer has often been simple. They have ignored the rather vital and comprehensive aspects of building up local capacity for adaptation or replication of technology to the ultimate point of developing and commercializing local initiatives. No doubt, the option of effective technology transfer is resource demanding and requires a complex and innovative approach, but it is an indispensable strategy to tackling the building materials deficiencies facing most developing countries.
In response to the challenge, and to demonstrate the correct approaches to technology transfer at the individual country level, UNCHS (Habitat), in collaboration with the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC), initiated the Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies. This Network has, so far, been limited to 12 countries and to only a few components of the technology-transfer process. But, having demonstrated the effectiveness of the strategy, the obvious target now should be to expand the participation to as many countries as possible.
Establishment of the Network
The Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies started with a workshop jointly organized by UNCHS (Habitat) and CSC in Kampala, Uganda, in 1985. The workshop was attended by representatives of 11 countries -Cyprus, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Malta, Mauritius, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda, The United Republic of Tanzania and Zimbabwe. The workshop achieved two key objectives: (a) to identify local institutions which could play a co-ordinating role in the promotion of local building materials both at the local level and through international collaboration; and (b) to appoint a resource person in each of the participating countries to act as a national coordinator and contact point for international contacts in attaining the objectives of the Network. Over the years, the Network has promoted technical information gathering and processing in the respective countries and this has culminated in the publication of the Journal of the Network of African Countries on Local Building Materials and Technologies.
Information for the Journal is provided by the national coordinators, for review, assessment and processing by UNCHS (Habitat) so that the eventual publication fits into a well defined strategy of not only information flow between countries, but, more importantly, providing relevant data for those countries facing certain crucial issues of technology to initiate some action. Using guidelines provided by UNCHS (Habitat) each national coordinator is expected to collect specific data on a nation-wide basis to reflect a comprehensive range of issues, but only those deemed to be relevant for promoting low-cost building materials. Typical issues on which information is gathered are: (a) research and laboratory activities; (b) actual production of selected low-cost building materials; (c) standards and specifications of local building materials; (d) manufacture of machinery and equipment for production of building materials; (e) use of local materials in construction; and (f) institutional support and policy matters. For every publication, one or two themes are featured covering suitable information on low-cost building-materials technologies from or outside the African region.
Network activities are in progress to ensure active participation by all English-speaking African countries. Similarly, relevant international organizations, notably, the Economic Commission for Africa, Shelter-Afrique, Appropriate Technology International (ATI), GTZ, USAID, Swiss Centre for Appropriate Technology (SKAT), and ITDG, have expressed willingness to use the Network and its Journal as a medium for providing information on low-cost building materials and, more so, creating a useful link between the participating countries and the international community. After a short period of disseminating the Journal to the countries in the region, one important objective has been realized: the untapped potentials and otherwise unretrievable but vital information at the local level are beginning to emerge through responses from readers.
The need and the modalities to strengthen the Network
Owing to the important role that the Network is playing for the improvement of technological capacities in the countries of the region, the need to strengthen its activities has become evident, not only to UNCHS (Habitat), but also to many countries participating in the Network. It is obvious that the activities of the Network should not be limited to collecting and disseminating technical information. Exchange of information is only a preliminary step among several processes required to achieve effective transfer of technology. There still remains some vital gaps to be filled if the objectives of the transfer of technology for the provision of adequate and affordable building materials is to be realized in the countries of the African region.
A network for promotion of appropriate building materials faces two crucial challenges. In the first place, information flow within the network must be presented in a coordinated and processed manner, taking into account the needs of recipient countries vis-is those of suppliers of technology and focusing on elements which underlie successful technology transfer, technology adaptation or technology innovation and, most of all, forging links between recipients and donors of components of the respective technologies. In the second place, the Network should be able to demonstrate in, at least one or two countries, the process of effective transfer of technology for a selected building material, covering a comprehensive range of activities - raw materials identification, machinery installation, production trial, formulation of standards and quality-control procedures, training of local labour in the production and use of materials, establishment of capacity for local fabrication and repair of machinery and establishing private-sector involvement in technology application initiative. Field demonstration projects, in combination with continuous information flow, will, thus, form the basis for replication in other countries.
For the Network to be effective two sets of information are required; first, information from the participating countries, and, secondly, information from sources outside the Network to be relevant to the participating countries. Yet it seems that the most pressing problem facing the Network is not the flow of information from external sources to the participating countries but, rather, information originating from the participating countries themselves. The designated national coordinators should not limit themselves to gathering information from their specific institutions, reporting only on projects in which they are personally involved possibly disregarding other interesting activity by others in their countries. For instance, the private and small-scale informal sector often launches initiatives and innovations which could be worth being aware of and disseminated in the country of origin and other countries.
Another possibility for strengthening the Network is to incorporate other African countries in the Network's activities. The logical first step should be to aim at expanding the Network to cover all English-speaking African countries. The next step would be to cover French-speaking countries. Incorporating other countries from another region particularly Asian countries, is another step which would, undoubtedly, strengthen the African network. This is justifiable because, to a large extent, most developing countries face similar limitations in technologies related to building materials for low-income housing.
In the preparation of part A of this article, a paper entitled: "Co-operation through networking in Africa" prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s Regional Office for Science and Technology in Africa (ROSTA), was used as reference, which is acknowledged. The paper was presented to the regional meeting of directors of national science and technology policy-making bodies in Africa, held in Nairobi, Kenya in July 1989.