Networks: how to get the most from them?

By Cecilia Gas, Intern, MAVA Foundation

Biodiversity conservation knows no boundaries. Species and habitats are not confined to a single country or a single area, and they face common threats all around the globe. Finding common solutions and coordinating actions among the different actors is indispensable to find long-lasting solutions.

Finding common solutions to conservation challenges is not an easy task. Countries and NGOs usually work within their territory or a specific area and often fail to engage with the broader issue or on a cross-boundary level. This is mainly due to the varying capacities of NGOs and the divergent laws and political views or tensions between countries. Despite these difficulties, MAVA has increasingly been carrying out activities at the regional level, to tackle common threats.

What is our secret you may wonder?

The answer is networks. Networks have proven to be a great option to strengthen the capacity of civil society to engage in coordinated projects at a regional level. In the last decade MAVA engaged actively with existing networks and pushed for the creation of new ones across the Mediterranean and West Africa, focusing on strengthening their capacities. The advantages have been manifold and have great potential for cross-border work but in practice, however they can be very difficult to manage.

Advantages of networks

Networks unite people

Networks are a place where people meet and gather to discuss a single topic, be it the protection of wetlands and coastal areas, the safeguarding of birds or ensuring the wellbeing of our scarce water resources. When people meet, they share ideas and good practices; they create alliances and raise awareness on issues. A sense of community is generated, and this, ideally results in better implementation of projects based on the learnings acquired during convenings.

Stronger impact through coordinated efforts

Besides improving the implementation of projects, networks can also allow for the coordination of efforts around a specific objective. Such has been the case of the MedPAN for the management of marine protected areas in the Mediterranean, Rios Livres to protect rivers in Portugal, or the Conservation Finance Alliance (CFA) to promote sustainable financing for biodiversity conservation. In these cases, coordinating efforts has led to promising results bringing together the expertise of different groups, experts and government organisations towards a common objective.

Aspects to take into account to ensure the success of networks

Establish clear objectives

Often networks try to tackle too many objectives; this increases their costs and reduces their efficiency. Without a clear mission and vision, networks tend to lose direction and increase the number of goals. Having targeted and outcome-oriented objectives can help counter this type of problem.

Strengthen coordination

Actions need to be coordinated through a strong central unit. In theory, networks could take decisions and agree on implementing activities during their meetings but in practice a coordination unit is often needed to receive and share information between meetings, monitor implementation and progress, and balance interests between network partners.

Lack of human and financial resources to coordinate a network’s activity can hinder its performance and usually their funding is hard to come by. Funding for biodiversity conservation is usually allocated to specific projects and no money is assigned to their administration. Without coordination, however, it is likely that the networks will have limited results. Sustaining a small and agile secretariat can be crucial to ensure their success while keeping the costs down.

When strengthening a coordination unit we have to be careful not to confuse it with taking the leadership of the network. Rather than taking a leadership position, the unit’s main purpose should be to facilitate the operation of the network and respond to its needs.

Closely follow up on activities

Networks rely on several actors to reach their objective. To ensure the quality of delivery of the network it is essential to develop a close follow up of projects and partners in the field and build capacity through learning by doing. This is particularly true for the weakest members of the network, typically small and emerging NGOs, for which a close accompanying can make the difference between success and failure.

Running networks as such requires a lot of effort but if successful they can lead to promising far-reaching results that would be impossible without the support and expertise of different actors. From a donor’s perspective working with networks brings great benefits when the points above are taken into account.

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