The trust factor: humanitarian networks in uncertain times
Last month I was immersed in the world of humanitarian networks, Bangladeshi-style. I’m interested in how national NGOs use networks to boost their capacities and improve preparation for, and response to, crises. Unpicking aspiration from action is always going to be tricky, and not just in the vibrant and diverse community of NGOs across Bangladesh.
In Dhaka, networks fulfil a range of functions – from jointly advocating for change in national level disaster management policy, to sharing good practice and mobilising resources. This hasn’t always been an easy process: there are a number of instances of short-term successes failing to lead to sustainable networks in the longer term.
Looking at networks across different contexts and sharing the factors critical to their success or failure is an exciting prospect. ALNAP has long suggested that a networks perspective could be important in getting the most out of the increasing number of initiatives and inter-agency structures increasingly present in the humanitarian system.
Back in Bangladesh, the pace of change seems furious. National NGOs are thinking and speaking more and more in terms of collective action; the UN is working with the government on national-level coordination structures; INGOs, through consortiums driven by donor funding and under the auspices of the ECB Project, are stepping up their collaboration efforts. Within this broad range of collaborative endeavours, those tasked with responding to disasters see positive improvements as well as specific instances of collaboration, like the recent work on joint emergency needs assessments led by ECB and ACAPS.
But despite the plethora of networks and other collaborations, their success is neither straightforward nor a given (and how you measure that success is another matter in itself). I was pleased, then, to see ECB’s publication, What We Know About Collaboration, which shares the experiences from a range of ECB country consortia, including Bangladesh. There are no quick fixes, and the ten identified factors for success cover area including:
- ensuring effective leadership
- the need for clear aims and objectives
- the importance of defined roles and responsibilities
- the ‘alignment’ of different parts of an organisation behind a collaborative effort.
One of the issues that cuts across many of the lessons in the ECB guide, and which was immediately apparent from looking at the range of networks and collaborations present in Bangladesh, is the fundamental importance of establishing and maintaining trust. ECB have even produced guidance on building trust in diverse teams.
Koppenjan and Klijn, in their work on managing uncertainty in networks, have noted that trust ‘develops slowly and disappears quickly’, but that when present trust can be an important force for action in situations of substantial uncertainty. This observation seems to transfer well into humanitarian settings (typified by uncertainty), where the trust developed through collaborations on an ongoing basis can be essential for triggering collaborative efforts during emergency response. The importance of trust in supplementing formal modes of control has also been noted in research into the role of network governance in crisis response (which may be of interest to anyone in this ALNAP discussion forum).
The Bangladesh experience seems also to show that where homogenous actors are brought together as a community it is easier to establish trust. Convening diverse groups of actors, even when they are already operating in the same environment, is a far harder task.
This may have important implications for NGO networks – particularly in cases such as Bangladesh, where there is great diversity between organisations working on a range of similar and related issues. And as a wider range of actors become involved in humanitarian response, this issue is likely to grow in importance, and test the ability of existing collaborative structures to manage diversity and build trust.
We will be publishing our full findings from Bangladesh soon, along with reports from the Philippines and Afghanistan, which will explore a range of examples emerging from the research telling us new things about how networks function.
In the meantime, I would love to hear from you – via the comment box below or email – if you have any examples of building trust when convening diverse groups within networks, whether it was a success, a failure or a mix of both (as most things usually are!).
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