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close this bookGATE - 4/92 - Networking: Lessons and Hopes (GTZ GATE, 1992, 56 p.)
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Networking for sustainable agriculture

by Bertus Haverkort, Laurens van Veldhuizen and Carine Alders

For the movement on Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) networking is an important tool. During a workshop in the Philippines in March 1992, attended by some 40 participants from 23 countries, experiences in networking were evaluated. The authors summarize the lessons of this workshop.

The workshop was organized jointly by the International Institute of Rural Reconstruction (IIRR), World Neighbors and ILEIA (Information Centre for Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture, The Netherlands). The objective of the workshop was to make an inventory of experience in networking and to indicate ways in which networking could further enhance sustainable agriculture.

There are two main reasons why we feel that networking is important and should be given more attention. First of all, the approach to development is changing. Development activities used to be organised in a top-down way. There was little need for organisations at different levels, like grassroot, extension and research, to share experiences and give mutual support. Information supposingly trickles down from researchers to extension officers to individual farmers.

It becomes clear now, that this kind of information is too general, may not be relevant, and
does not respond quickly enough to the changing environment farmers find themselves in. Emphasis is now rather on strengthening the capacity of farmers and communities to experiment, to become active developers and selectors of information they need. In other words, farmers, development organisations and researchers need to develop new technologies in a participatory way. For this approach, networking is a must.

Secondly, networking may be a tool to overcome major bottlenecks in developing Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture. Some of these bottlenecks are related to agricultural development policies. These often still blindly favour agricultural intensification, where specialisation and high levels of external inputs are the keywords. They are mostly focussed on marketable and export commodities rather than on food crops for local consumption. Subsidies support the use of chemical farm inputs rather than at enhancing local biological and physical resources.

Bottlenecks

It is clear that a shift in these policies will not come automatically. An impact can only be made if farmers' groups, NGOs and research organisations work together. Here too, networking can play a major role. Other bottlenecks relate to development support organisations themselves. The tasks they face are manifold and complex. In the field of agricultural technologies they need to be aware of newly emerging technical and methodological possibilities to fit various local situations. They need skills in participatory methods of working with farmers. They must develop links with government agencies to obtain support for their field programmes and they have to follow national and international developments.

Rather than each individual organisation carrying out this great variety of tasks for themselves, cooperation should be sought. In a network, development organisations could combine strengths and divide tasks.

During the workshop, we used the following definition:

A network is any group of individuals and/or organisations who on a voluntary basis, exchange information or goods or implement joint activities and who organised themselves in such a way that the individual autonomy remains intact.

However, networks can have many different forms and use different procedures depending on the specific situation. The participants of the Philippine workshop represented a wide variety of network types. Formal and more informal networks were represented, some working on a local level while others having a more global orientation, some specialised in one issue while others focussed on sustainable agriculture in general. This allowed the workshop to explore the comparative advantages of and the complimentarily between these types of networks.


One of the management problems in networking: centralization. Illustration: Studio Driya Media/ILElA

Abstract

The authors describe the experiences of networks in low-external-input and sustainable agriculture. In their view networking is essential to overcome information deficits. It is a means of establishing effective links between farmers, NGOs and researchers working in this field. According to the authors an important precondition for networking is precisely defined aims and a willingness to devote time and energy to the network at the expense of one's own programmes.

Resume

Les auteurs decrivent les experiences realisees avec des reseaux operant dans le secteur de l'agriculture ecologique. La formation des reseaux est indispensable afin de combler le lacunes existent au niveau de l'information. Des contacts effectifs peuvent ainsi etre etablis entre des paysans, des organisations non gouvernementales et des chercheurs actifs dans ce domaine. La formation d'un reseau est liee a deux conditions importantes, a savoir la determination precise des objectifs et la disposition a consacrer du temps et de l'energie au reseau, au detriment des propres programmes.

Extracto

Los autores describer las experiencias de redes pare la agriculture ecologica. La creacion de redes seria una necesidad absolute pare salver deficites de informacion. De este modo se crean contactos eficaces entre agricultores. Organizaciones no gubernamentales e investigadores activos en este campo. Condicion previa esencial pare la formacion de redes seria la determinacion precise de los objetivos asi como la disposicion a sacrificer pare la red tiempo y energias en detrimento de programas propios.


Hierarchical differences: Membership disparity. Illustration: Studio Driya Media/ILElA

Paving the way

Networks are emerging at all levels at rapid speed. Although this is a positive process, it is realised now that one needs to spend some time defining the network's objectives before jumping into large-scale structures and activities. In some cases, the network organisers may have a clear vision of their objectives, but have not formally articulated or communicated these objectives to other participants in the network. The result is that the network has a difficult time in determining its direction or activities, lacks a unifying theme and cannot sustain the interest of its participants.

Based on experiences of workshop participants, a number of questions could be formulated which need to be answered before a network is started. These include:

· Are there concrete common problems and constraints faced by potential members and are they aware of these?

· Are there relevant results/experiences that could be shared?

· Do potential members have a good idea of what a network is and what it would mean to them?

· Are they prepared to spend the necessary time and energy in sharing and networking at the expense of their own programmes?

· Is there an atmosphere of openness among potential members which allows them to admit mistakes and learn from them?

Only when the initiators have taken these issues into consideration, the development of a network can proceed.

Building foundations

Based on the experiences of recently established networks the workshop succeeded in defining important elements in a methodology for building strong, independent field-based networks. For anyone who takes the initiative for such a network, a crucial first step would be to look already in this stage for partners, other interested parties to "carry" the process. It means that some form of initiating group is formed, an adhoc committee with representatives of different organisations, NGOs, and individuals. In order to allow the committee to do their preparatory work, they may need assistance from a support organisation which could make some seed money available to cover travel and communication costs, as well as costs for the constituting meeting of the network.

This ad-hoc committee should start with an inventory of the felt need for a network and of the available experience and expertise. On the basis of this inventory, a register of organisations with experience in the field of LEISA could be made, the problems experienced by them could be inventorised and the feasibility of a network be analysed. In fact, even where a network did not come off the ground, the register continues to be an important source of information.

A statement of intent for a possible network would then be formulated by this committee to be presented to potential members at a constituting meeting. The meeting, should agree on the intention, objectives, structure and activities of the network. For implementation of activities and the necessary financial resources networks should always first mobilise and use the capacities, experiences, and funds from member organisations. Only where this would not be sufficient, additional structures like a network secretariat, could be established and funding proposals be forwarded to donor agencies.

Of course this is not a blueprint on how to start a network, nor should a starting network be too formalised, but it does show the importance of a careful, step-by-step development of the network. Experience has also shown that face-to-face contact is crucial in building a network. Well designed and managed workshops will therefore often be a central network event. Some very effective networks are nothing more than a series of such workshops.


Networks are emerging at all levels at rapid speed. Although this is a positive process, it is realised now that one needs to spend some time defining the network's objectives before jumping into large-scale structures.

Illustration: Studio Driya Media/lLElA

Facing the problem

The problems encountered in networking are mostly closely connected to either structure, its management, resources and monitoring and evaluation. Farmer-based networks for example often face the need for informal structures with flexible activities at village level. NGO networks on the other hand struggle to develop clear criteria for membership; on the one hand, anyone who wants to contribute seems to be welcome; on the other hand there is the need for a joint vision and mission to maintain network coherence.

In managing networks the key challenge is to maintain a balance between coordination and pooling of resources on the one hand and promoting decentralisation and maintaining active involvement and commitment of members on the other. To find this balance, rotation of leadership is considered important to avoid monopolisation and concentration of knowledge and power. The internal processes of management should be evaluated periodically, preferably with the help of outsiders.

For any network to be operational, resources would be required, like funds and, what's more important, time from members. Often it is felt that network activities compete for time with members' own activities. This situation could be prevented by making sure that network activities clearly serve the actual needs of members and their programmes.

So far, most networking experiences have been based on trial and error. Although a lot of lessons can already be formulated, networking can be done on the basis of a blueprint. Continuous monitoring and evaluations are therefore essential. The workshop developed some first guidelines.

Strengthening the movement

The discussion on the role of networks to enhance LEISA does and should not stop at the closure of the workshop. The workshop therefore formulated several recommendations to improve networking for low-external-input and sustainable agriculture and its key activities. Among others it was recommended that the evolution for farmer based networks should be promoted and ways of linking different types of existing networks should be studied. Management capacities for networking should be strengthened by promoting inter-network visits, developing a resource book and organising training courses. Support organisations should also get together to study their possible role in further enhancing networks. Other recommendations referred to the role networks should play in areas like marketing of LEISA produce, training, and advocacy and policy dialogue.

Task forces were initiated to start working on each group of recommendations. Each task force consists at least of several participants to the workshop from different parts of the world, but others have joined afterwards for their specific interest.

The workshop generated of course much more detailed information on experiences of networks, on the problems they faced and the solutions they found. Part of this information is published in a special issue of the ILEIA Newsletter "Let's work together". This also contains a complete list of papers of workshop participants. To obtain more information, please contact the authors at ILEIA.

References

ILEIA Newsletter Vol. 8 No. 2(1992). ILEIA, RP. Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands. Fax: + 31 (0) 33940791 Telex 79380 ETC NL

2) Nelson, J. and Farrington J. (1992). Information Exchange Networking for Agricultural Development: A review of concepts and practices ODI, London United Kingdom (draft).