In July 2020 Oxfam Novib launched the book ‘Beating the Drum: Stories of Influencing Networks’ [available in English and French]. The book, which is part of a comprehensive learning trajectory on ‘worldwide influencing networks’ (WIN), explores the practical experiences of nine influencing networks around the world and their efforts to influence decision-makers on a variety of issues. Issues include land rights, the abolition of nuclear weapons, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The learning trajectory on influencing networks was closed with a webinar series on some of the topics discussed in the book. Together with speakers from Oxfam in Sri Lanka, Occupied Palestinian Territory & Israel (OPTI) and the Netherlands, we explored the topic of community mobilization. The second topic was mutual capacity strengthening in influencing networks, discussed together with Wemos in the Netherlands and Oxfam in Southeast Asia. The third webinar was organized on the topic of shifting power to the South together with Simavi in the Netherlands and hosted speakers from sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) alliances in India, Kenya and Ghana, and a water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) alliance in Bangladesh [NB: a more detailed summary blog will be posted soon]. The webinar series was closed with the French launch of ‘Beating the Drum’, hosting speakers from Oxfam in Morocco and Oxfam in West-Africa.
Raising voices through community mobilization
The cases in ‘Beating the Drum’ demonstrated that engaging the general public is important for influencing networks in a variety of ways. First of all, strong public support amplifies the policy demand and strengthens its place on the political agenda. Secondly, mobilizing citizens and communicating their voices is important as the joint voice of citizens has a greater weight than the voice of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) alone. Lastly, being rooted in constituency provides credibility and protection.
At all levels of influencing and in all approaches, it appears important to combine a well-grounded evidence base drawn from research and practice, with a true human story. In practice, as was demonstrated during the webinar, this can take different forms (e.g. smart communication, radio, videos, meetings, or participatory events like theatre and songs). It was discussed that, generally, the simpler the tools the easier it is to reach people. Furthermore, some influencing networks operate on sensitive issues or in a context of shrinking civic space. Especially in the latter it helps if local groups and communities are connected.
Mutual capacity strengthening in influencing networks
In Beating the Drum we learned from several cases that capacity strengthening within influencing networks can take different forms and can happen in an ad hoc way or through deliberate efforts. For instance, in one network it happens through deliberate exchange of knowledge and skills while in the other it happens through the daily practice of jointly implementing a programme. Capacity strengthening is not a linear process and cannot always be pre-defined. Key to capacity strengthening is its mutuality and its reciprocal nature. Through capacity strengthening, mutual learning is facilitated in a collaborative and collective process, where different actors bring separate knowledge, skills and networks to the table.
In the webinar we discussed that capacity strengthening can be strongly connected to the dilemma of power. For instance, who is defining or deciding what types of knowledge and expertise are important and should be strengthened? To balance inequalities in power pro-actively while setting up capacity strengthening strategies, it is important to see capacity strengthening as a mutual process (instead of one-way or top-down). Committing to knowledge and information sharing at all levels in the network also helps to deal with imbalances in access to information and decision-makers, and ultimately capacity.
Shifting power to the South
Power imbalance in influencing networks can manifest itself in various forms. One frequently mentioned form in ‘Beating the Drum’ and in the webinar follows from differences in financial resources. Especially since funds are often disseminated through Northern-based or international organizations, this adds to a (sometimes uncomfortable) power imbalance between the North and the South. Balancing power remains to be challenging and requires continuous efforts. Therefore, as was concluded in the webinar, dealing adequately with power dilemmas, for instance by setting-up transparent governance systems, is more important than striving for full equality in all aspects.
Leadership in (Southern) alliances centers itself around having a shared ambition, as demonstrated in the webinar by several SRHR alliances. Having clarity on constitution, conflict resolution and mandates at the kick-off stage of an alliance has proven to be a back bone when having to deal with situations of conflict. In the discussion around shifting power in influencing networks it is important to consider grassroots organizations, as these are key in making networks more community-based. As was concluded in the webinar, this highlights the need for Southern leadership and a transparent operationalizing process. Southern leadership supports legitimacy of the network and also plays an important role in ensuring its sustainability.
This webinar series furthered our reflection and sharing of knowledge among practitioners and academics on how influencing networks can contribute to the solution of complex problems in society. In the series, the diversity in experiences and approaches that were demonstrated by cases in ‘Beating the Drum’ was further elaborated upon, and more concrete tactics were shared on community mobilization, mutual capacity strengthening and shifting the power to the South. Also new questions were raised, in particular related to realizing true mutual beneficial partnerships in a world of competition and donor-driven programmes. We encourage this learning journey to continue!
We would like to thank all the presenters and participants for the interesting sessions. If you’d like to connect on learning together with and from worldwide influencing networks, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.