This post, on networking and collaboration, is part two of a three-part series that discusses the role of innovative funding in our current climate.
Community organisations are often so focused on the problems they are trying to address and so under-resourced that most, if not all of their energy goes into the day to day struggles to keep the wheels turning. Putting systems and processes in place that enables them to meet funders’ and donors’ requirements can be difficult, and are not always at the top of their agenda. Not prioritising putting systems and processes in place is not necessarily because of lack of interest in being accountable – it could be a simple matter not having the resources, and having to prioritise immediate service delivery.
The time for networking and collaboration
This creates a dilemma. Often, organisations that are closest to the biggest needs, are those who battle to get funding. The extent of their work and the lengths to which they go to serve communities with minimal resources often go unnoticed. Just as there is no time for putting governance systems in place, there is no time for polishing the marble and communicating what they do and what they achieve through their work. They just get down and dirty and do what is needed.
This phenomenon of informal grassroots organisations that do much-needed work with limited resources unearths two important issues: Firstly, it shows that communities have valuable assets, which are actually used in service of communities; and secondly, informality may have its challenges, but also brings advantages to the table.
Development planning, by nature, focuses on problems. The international development sector tends to work from a problem-perspective: there are problems in the world, and problems have to be solved. There may even be the notion that those to whom these problems “belong” are not able to solve them and that “clever people from outside” are needed to “fix what is wrong”. Most of us are familiar with problem tree analysis, and how that feeds into development planning.
The problem-solving approach represents a certain way of looking at, and engaging with the world, and specifically with the developing world. It may have undercurrents of “us” and “them”; it can be based on assumptions of “how things should be – what the ideal is”, without knowing what the ideal situation looks like from the perspective of communities; and it can, albeit unintentionally, promote a view that communities that need help have no usable assets at all – resources from the outside are what is needed to “solve the problem”.
It is essential to change this perspective, and to start looking through an asset-based lens? What assets are inherent in the community, and how can they be harnessed, magnified and strengthened? How can external resources be used to supplement what already exist in communities, and fill the gaps that exist?
Changing the way in which development role players look at communities should also involve looking differently at informality. The informal economy in South Africa is sometimes referred to as the “second economy”, while the formal economy is regarded as the “first economy” – the primary, the desired state, the ideal. This way of thinking has thus far not delivered the best possible transformative results and the notion of one integrated economy seems unattainable. Similarly, informality is often regarded as a challenge, and formalisation seems to be the logical solution on face value.
Maybe it is time to change the narrative from one that asks how informality can be changed to formality, to a narrative that asks how we can embrace the virtues of informality, and use these to the advantage of all. We have to admit that we may not even know exactly what the perks of informality are. However, community responses to providing food during the COVID-19 crisis has given us a glimpse into the agility inherent in informality.
Formalisation is not the answer
It is exactly informality, absence of red tape, and connectedness to immediate needs that enabled community organisations to jump into action and to almost immediately respond to hunger in communities. Some needs cannot wait for the outcomes of meetings, task teams to be formed, and bureaucratic systems to get the wheels rolling. A hungry child is hungry now and will go to bed hungry if they do not get food today.
Considering the connectedness of informality with fast-changing needs, its adaptability, the capacity to respond swiftly, and the ability to provide relevant services and solutions, it may be counterproductive to attempt to promote formalisation. Considering that formalisation will obliterate some of the best assets inherent in informality, it may be necessary to find solutions that would retain the advantages of informality whilst enabling informal structures to connect better with formal systems and funding opportunities.
Another benefit of collaborative approaches is that it shifts the focus from financial resources (capital) to a much broader and multi-dimensional concept of resources, which recognises and uses the inherent value (capital) inherent in shared knowledge and relationships.
The value of intermediaries are becoming increasingly evident in many contexts, and could also be the solution for connecting informal structures with the resources they need but which are located in formal structures that have fixed requirements for working with others. The gap between formal and informal can be bridged by intermediary organisations, who can relate to both the world of formality and the world of informality. Such bridging structures can be other community organisations which have become more structured and adept at engaging with government and donor funding structures, and can step in for smaller on-the-ground and emergent community organisations with limited resources for building systems and structures. Another option for bridging the gap is working with convening agents who are able to bring stakeholders together and who are able to “translate the language” of the informal to be understandable to the formal, and vice versa.
The answer therefore lies in networking and collaboration. It lies in pooling strengths and resources, and working with others to make the most of available resources, instead of competing for resources. This kind of collaboration will not only address the immediate needs of more informal organisations, but will also gradually build the capacity of such organisations to work with others, and to engage with the formal sector.
Making the most of all resources
Ultimately, it is not an “either-or” situation, but rather a case of “we need both”. By combining and connecting informality and formality, a better system can be created. Where funders are more in touch with community needs, and communities can access external resources in an accountable manner.
Another key advantage of such an approach is that it enhances nuanced responses which take context into account and moves away from “one-size-fits-all” projects. Where a standard “recipe” is followed. Of course, recognising and encouraging complexity in programming has implications for monitoring and evaluation. These are key aspects of accountability, and changes in how programmes are approached, developed and implemented will also lead to changes in approaches to planning, monitoring, evaluation, reporting and learning (PMERL). The COVID-19 crisis and pivoting of programmes will undoubtedly shape MERL in future.
By Fia van Rensburg
Stay tuned for the next post:
Part 3 of the 3-part series: IT IS TIME TO TALK ABOUT AGENCY AND INTENT