Reflecting on the Frayed Edges of an Unraveled Network by Anthea Houston

Wednesday, 7 March, 2007 - 21:53

From Networking to Not WorkingAlmost two years ago the affiliates of the Urban Sector Network (USN) took a decision to initiate the responsible closure of the network. Various events necessitated this

From Networking to Not Working

Almost two years ago the affiliates of the Urban Sector Network (USN) took a decision to initiate the responsible closure of the network. Various events necessitated this decision that was not taken lightly and was equally hard to implement.

No longer in the shadow of the umbrella body, some former affiliates have managed to build their own public identity and to advance their work whilst others grow increasingly weak and face closure.

Whatever the shortcomings of the network may have been, in its wake, the urban development sector is weakened by the absence of a strong and coherent pro-poor voice outside of government. Over the past three years we’ve also witnessed the National Land Committee shut down and the South African NGO Coalition limp along with ever declining representation and an unclear strategic agenda.

I’m left trying to comprehend the demise of these networks and seeking to understand what is required of NGO leaders in this era. This article discursively shares my reflections, throwing the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons to provoke debate within the sector and hopefully begin to move ourselves to a new course of action

The Undoing of the USN
Some insight can be gained using the Urban Sector Network, loosely as a case study and without malignant intentions. The network functioned well in its early days when operating as a platform for lobbying, advocacy, policy engagement and cross learning. The success of collective action in those formative years naturally created potential to access substantial funding (from the European Union) using the network as a conduit. The nature and longevity (eight years) of this main grant played a vital role in the formalization of the network, the establishment of the Section 21 Company and in the assembly of the necessary human resources to manage the contract.

This formalization process generated unremitting tensions and petty power plays between the network’s governing structure and the affiliate organisations; whereas the loose network was clearly accountable to the participating organisations it served, the formalized network was accountable to its Board of Directors charged with implementing the legal company’s objectives as stated in its founding documents.

The formalization process thus created the infrastructure for the network to take on a life of its own. Over time the network (national) office acted increasingly independently of network affiliates. The separate agendas emerged mostly as a result of the unclear strategic priorities of affiliate organisations, the ensuing lack of consensus on a common network agenda, dual points of accountability and an element of role confusion. In the very end these actions were also motivated purely by self-preservation, but this was not a general trend.

The presence of EU funding and network office infrastructure led to the accessing of other grants and the network’s focus made a considerable shift from the business of advocacy and cross learning toward fund mobilization and contract management.

The external environment went through various cycles of change between 1996 and 2005. Government focused on policy formulation, then shifted attention to service delivery. The nature of state engagement with civil society transformed. Scores of former NGO workers took up posts in government and the private sector, and donors reprioritized NGOs were under pressure to craft relevant and dynamic strategies, which were responsive to the changing environment and had to do so with fewer financial and human resources. Many failed to evolve and to sustain the pursuit of their vision.

A Wedge Driven by Divided Loyalties
Affiliates diverged on a widening range of issues in the Urban Sector Network. These included conflicting views on the role of NGOs in post-apartheid South Africa specifically in relation to the state; in particular the role of NGOs as implementing agents for service delivery was frequently debated. Ultimately affiliates adopted different strategic agendas, played different roles, related differently to the state and to community based organizations and used different strategies to mobilize resources.

As a result of the lack of convergence the strategic agenda and advocacy priorities of the network were diluted and the strategic impact paled in comparison with that of the formative years. With the main benefit derived by affiliates from the network being funds affiliates stuck together despite the far-reaching implications of their divergence. Furthermore affiliates guarded the financial resource pool and were reluctant to admit new members to the network thereby further weakening the strategic impact of the network.

For eight years the network office managed more than R30 million each year in donor money intended to support the work of affiliates. The nine affiliates themselves collectively turned over an estimated R25 million per annum. Despite its shift in focus toward fund mobilization, the network’s contract management capacity vacillated from excellent to critically weak from time to time, depending on the capacity of network staff. The lack of early warning systems and failure to act when affiliates breached contractual agreements jeopardized relationships with donors and contributed to perpetuating the bad financial practice of some affiliates (ultimately leading to their downfall).

How did nine mature organizations that commanded so much financial resources fail to nurture and sustain the network as a platform for collaborative action? Furthermore, are there any parallels with the demise of other networks and what can we learn from these experiences? The array of problems that plagued the USN could have been overcome were we not suffering a crisis of leadership. Decision-makers in the USN share collective responsibility for growing increasingly short-sighted and the series of bad strategic decisions that led to the network’s demise.

The Potential for Robustness through Reflection
We need to rekindle a culture of healthy inter and intra organizational debate within the sector. As NGO leaders we must be willing to subject our strategies, decisions, actions and values to scrutiny and commit to processes of self-evaluation. In addition we need to acknowledge that correct approaches cannot always be identified; the right strategies and positions are not always self-evident and it is sometimes only through the pursuit of a range of approaches that we discover better practice.

As such, the development of a culture of debate, self-evaluation, and action-learning is imperative. We have to develop the capacity to learn from our own experiences and that of others; working with public funds – in the interests of the poor – places an obligation on NGOs to be rigorous in the application of these funds, not only in our financial management but also in the business of making and implementing our strategies. We need to build organizations that have the maturity to be self-critical, the flexibility to change course, and the value base to build and maintain credibility.

Our organisations must develop a tolerance for difference whilst cultivating this culture without which platforms for collaborative action will continue to flounder and fail. In this era we need leadership in the NGO sector that can handle the polemic essential to the relevance, impact and survival of NGOs.

Anthea Houston
Chief Executive Officer
Development Action Group 

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