What is Networking?
Networking is a matter of creating useful linkages, both within and among communities, organizations, and societies, in order to mobilize resources and achieve various goals.1 One author describes it as the “art of building alliances.” 2
Networking occurs at a variety of levels. At the level of neighborhoods and communities, it is a matter of creating reciprocal relationships with other members of society. In many instances, parties meet informally to share a meal or hold a casual meeting. They often share resources, contacts, and information with one another. As a result of these conversations and newly found connections, individuals often find jobs and freelance work, locate apartments, trade services, and develop cooperative strategies.
Some common examples of networking activities include attending trade or professional association meetings, volunteering for community work, visiting with other members of one’s social clubs or religious groups, posting messages on mailing lists, and talking to other people in one’s community.3 Networking contacts are often found through friends, extended family, alumni associations, former bosses, and members of the various clubs, religious groups, or other organizations to which one belongs.4
Many professionals have increasingly relied on Internet chat rooms, networking websites, and online forums to discuss recent developments in their occupation or field and ask questions of each other. Those looking for employment typically find that networking is one of the most effective ways to find a job. In many villages in less developed parts of the world, establishing social contacts is important for individuals who need to locate money and resources or seek information about where seasonal workers are needed.5 Networking also allows individuals in many countries to form groups so that they may qualify for loans from banks. Networking is also an important component of community organizing. This requires that diverse members of the population build relationships, share resources, and work together in an organized way for social change. Networking can occur among members of a single organization or social group, among people from many different communities and identity groups, and among organizations.6 It is a matter of forging connections with other individuals or groups who face similar problems and issues and want to work together toward solutions. These social connections allow individuals, groups, and organizations to find allies, access tools, share practical wisdom, and build collaborative strategies. Networking thus helps those working for social change to share resources and information, devise an agenda, and engage in collective action within their society.7 For example, local activists and those working in the field of peacemaking will find it useful to make contact with other grassroots organizers to coordinate efforts, learn what has already been done on the issue, and discuss what has and has not worked. Likewise, it is important for organizations to make contacts with other agencies, groups, and individuals that might support their work in direct or indirect ways.
Like coalition building, networking is grounded in the notion that people who pool their resources have a greater ability to advance their interests. Connections formed through networking can be useful in broadening the research and knowledge base of social campaigns and generating new resources and backing for their efforts. Establishing alliances also makes it easier for organizations to gain help from support groups and allies who support their goals. Insofar as those who coordinate their activities and share resources have a greater chance of success, networking often empowers groups and helps to give people a real voice in decisions that affect them. Through networking, individuals also may develop relationships with third party neutrals as well as adversaries, which ultimately may make it easier for them to come to some sort of agreement in current or future disputes.
Networking at the National and International Levels
In addition to the networking that takes place among individuals at the local level, there are national networks that bring together local organizations, religious groups, community groups, trade unions, and hospitals. The types of networking that commonly take place at the national level are civic engagement and multi-stakeholder participation. Civic engagement is a matter of interaction between civil society organizations and governments so that they can build constructive relationships and bring about social, economic, and political change. Likewise, rapid advances in media, telecommunications, and computer technology have facilitated wide sharing of information among multiple civil society stakeholders. Partnerships among these diverse individuals, groups, and organizations have proven to be an effective way to advance development projects and reduce poverty within communities.8
For example, the Nicaraguan Community Movement (MCN) is a national network of community-based organizations that provides training, accompaniment, and legal advice to community groups. Local and national authorities recognize the MCN as a representative voice of civil society.9 Such civil society networks offer opportunities for increased communication among diverse groups and often give weight to community demands. Often this generates broad public participation and further networking among citizens in local communities.10
Networking also plays a key role in peacebuilding efforts and has great potential to strengthen the capacity of the peacebuilding field as a whole. Because a diverse group of people and organizations work in the fields of conflict resolution and peacebuilding, there are often heavy needs for coordination. Involved actors include local governments, international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, development organizations, conflict resolution groups, local peacemakers, and citizens. All of these actors have different backgrounds, cultures, and interests, and in some cases some of them are not even aware of each other’s existence.11
To remedy this, several European countries have established national platforms on peacebuilding. These networks help to create an infrastructure for an effective system of collaboration and coordination. Their activities include the organization of national meetings and regional consultations in order to allow for information sharing and communication among a wide number of actors. In addition, these networks enable collective lobbying and advocacy activities that can encourage the allocation of public resources to the task of building peace. For example, they can participate in educational and media activities that increase awareness about the importance of conflict prevention.12
At the international level, the European Platform for Conflict Prevention and Transformation is a network of organizations working in the field of conflict prevention and resolution. It aims to include a wide range of participant organizations throughout Europe and to support the establishment of national networks. One of the useful aspects of these national and international platforms is their clearinghouse mandate, which allows for a wide exchange of information. The European Platform has published an international directory that lists 500 conflict management organizations and information about their activities as well. This enables people to know what other actors are doing in which regions so that human rights, peace, development, and humanitarian NGOs can coordinate their efforts. Likewise, the Great Lakes Policy Forum is an international network that involves collaboration among government and nongovernmental officials to discuss sensitive issues and collect early warning signals.13 The Horn of Africa NGO Network for Development (HANND) is a network of indigenous civil society actors and NGOs in the Horn of Africa, which began networking among themselves in 1997. In March 2000, at a regional meeting in Djibouti, the participants in HANND decided to establish themselves as a legal and formal regional network. This network allows for communication among civil society leaders and allows participants to share useful information about conflict prevention, food security, and capacity development. [From: http://www.hannd.net/ ]
Increased international networking might allow actors to exchange information about the evaluation of initiatives, lessons learned, and surveys done. As a result, the field as a whole may become stronger, more structured, and less scattered. These networks also have the potential to raise awareness, both among the general public as well as those working in the field, about the scope of conflict resolution activities and infrastructure that is already in place.14
In addition, international networking can help to build a global constituency that supports violence prevention, coordinates advocacy and lobbying efforts, and initiates educational and media projects. It is important for peacebuilders to develop partnerships with local people who can provide guidance, feedback, and support.15 These networks bring together actors who live in specific conflict areas with those who operate from abroad. Local parties can assist with training, help external actors to solve problems, and generate new ideas as fresh challenges emerge. Networking also helps to develop trusting relationships among multiple actors and gives local groups a chance to talk to members of foreign governments and NGOs. For example, through the training of trainers program in Burundi, external trainers networked with local actors to evaluate ideas about training and peacebuilding.
Networking has also played an important role in the realm of research, education, and scholarship. Partnerships and linkages among scholars and institutions allow those in postgraduate and professional communities to share existing knowledge about development and enhance conflict resolution education and research. These initiatives, many of which rely on online learning, seek to bridge some of the knowledge gaps between developed and developing countries. The Internet increasingly offers a powerful and low cost means of international networking so that organizations can share observations and knowledge to profit from each other’s wisdom.
For example, the United Nations University’s Food and Nutrition Programme for Human and Social Development links up scientists and food and nutrition institutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The goal is to disseminate knowledge and support capacity building activities across the globe. Similarly, the aim of the World Forests, Society, and Environment Research Program is to conduct research on world forests and environment in order to support sustainable forest development and ensure the well-being of local populations.16 This global research program involves networking among international and national forest research institutes and individual researchers throughout the world. Forums are held to allow for discussion and increase the dissemination of information. This increased collaboration links researchers from developed and developing countries, strengthens the overall research capacity of the field, and allows for more widespread access to research findings.
Why is Networking Important?
Networking is important for a variety of reasons, many of which already have been mentioned above. At both the individual and collective level, networking is a strategy of empowerment. As a result of networking, organizations and individuals are able to apply political pressure at the local and global level in support of their goals. Networking aids in organizing and mobilization, empowers civil society groups, and enables poor and powerless individuals to have a stronger voice in the processes of decision-making.17 This is because having a strong set of social connections helps parties to organize lobbying and advocacy activities at the national, regional, and international level in order to bring about needed social changes. This typically involves challenging adverse laws, restructuring power relations, and bringing about policy changes. Through such joint efforts, parties are often more capable of influencing the future of their communities.
At the international level, networking can also help to unite actors who live in a specific conflict area with those who operate from abroad. Two examples of this type of international coalition are the Horn of Africa Program and the Great Lakes Policy Forum. The Forum involves informal collaboration among government and nongovernmental officials to discuss sensitive issues. It helps to collect early warning signals, develop relationships built on mutual trust among multiple actors, and give local groups a chance to talk to members of foreign governments and NGOs.18
Networks also help to unite people at the local level with people at the global level as they work toward their shared goals. For example, Diverse Women for Diversity (DWD) is a network that partners indigenous women with professional lobbyists to “work towards crucial issues that are being decided upon at UN-Conferences on world trade, sustainable agriculture, biotechnology, and biodiversity.”19 The network is increasingly engaged in international negotiations surrounding peacemaking and economic globalization.
In addition, people from diverse backgrounds who have faced a variety of struggles come together to advance their common objectives. This facilitates interaction between people in different parts of the world and allows them to recognize both their differences and their commonality. As a result of networking with others both inside and outside their social groups, disenfranchised members of society can realize and extend their power.
Women Living Under Muslim Law (WLUML), for example, is a network that brings together women from throughout the Muslim world to challenge adverse laws. While these women may live in very different contexts, Muslim laws affect all of them. The joint support of women from a variety of contexts helps to facilitate initiatives against discriminatory laws and policies.20 Forming such connections with people both inside and outside their immediate social group thus allows less powerful individuals to gain influence within their society.
Because networks offer opportunities for increased communication, they have the potential to become a sort of international civil society out of which can emerge different kinds of strategies and projects. Development Alternatives with Women for New Era (DAWN), for example, is a network of activists, NGO workers, and academics committed to addressing the important issues that face the majority of women in Third World countries. Major aims of this international network are social transformation and empowerment. In many Asian countries, networks among civil society organizations, citizens, and community groups, play an important role in development projects. Networking among multiple stakeholders allows for the sharing of information and knowledge that is important for poverty reduction and economic development. As a result of new advances in media, telecommunications, and computing, there is potential to share this information with a broader audience of development stakeholders.21 Good networking also helps to build trusting relationships among parties and allows for the sharing of resources so that groups can bring about important social, economic, and political changes. Networking is also an important part of human rights monitoring. Guarding against human rights abuses requires the active sharing of information and cooperation among human rights partners and local actors. To accomplish this task, networks of civil society groups that include NGOs, church groups, women’s groups, and youth organizations need to be nurtured. Linkages among human rights monitors and local organizations help to build relationships of trust so that that a greater amount of high-quality information is shared among human rights groups, religious groups, church organizations, trade unions, and hospitals.22 Regular meetings can be held to allow all of these actors to share information and advice, which can lead to constructive thinking and new solutions.
The preceding discussion suggests that networking is an important part of collective action at the local, national, and international levels. It serves to empower individuals, communities, and organizations so that they may achieve their goals. It seems clear, then, that the ability to network effectively is an important skill for people to possess. What sorts of capacities are needed for effective networking? Strong networkers need to be able to develop rapport with a wide variety of people. Typically they have the respect and trust of their fellow citizens so that others listen to them. They demonstrate sincere concern and curiosity and actively seek out information and knowledge.23 In addition, they have developed an understanding of how groups and institutions relate to each other and are aware of how different sectors of the community function within the social system. They are outgoing and friendly and stay in contact with other people in the network on an ongoing basis. A good networker should be skilled at calling people “to assembly,” have strong listening skills, and be adept at organizing activities.24
In addition, they will be proficient at some of the activities that are central to networking. These include collective lobbying, information sharing, coordinated advocacy, and the initiation of innovative educational and media projects. Good communication skills and knowledge about mass media are also helpful.