Friday, September 01, 2006

International Newsletter on Sustainable Local Development

Newsletter #31
September 1, 2006


Message from the Editorial Team

Communication and Utopia: promoting solidarity economy
The challenges of working in networks

Building Networks: how to overcome the challenges?
Some ideas

Cancellation of the 4th meeting of RIPESS
Announcement by Belgian organizations

Message from the Editorial Team

We regard this current newsletter as a special issue on the topic of networks.

The cancellation of the International Meeting of RIPESS next April in Belgium testifies to the difficulty of networks in Europe and other countries to keep alive an international network such as RIPESS. The next meeting is now being considered for 2009. This pause or downtime creates an occasion to reflect on the functions and the organization of networks, as well as networking in Europe.

A workshop at the meeting of Roanne last June, entitled Communication and Utopia: promoting solidarity economy, brings a significant and relevant contribution to the debate. In addition, an article by Yvon Poirier, member of our team, raises several practical questions concerning network building.

From our perspective, finding ways adapted to build networks for organizations of civil society actors is more than ever necessary, because they participate in the international building of a fairer and more equitable globalization; they integrate concepts of sustainable development, social solidarity economy, and this starting from the local territories. The civil society faces the challenge to constitute itself as a third power with them between the economy and politics.

However, after identifying that in spite of the great ambitions which we share, the building of international networking is only at its infancy. Networks and organizations are very much alive in certain countries. For example, social solidarity economy networks have made great strides in Brazil and Peru in South America, in Mali and Niger in Africa, and in Canada and Belgium, as well as community development in India. However, at the international level, the existing organizations are very fragile and weak, because of their limited level of means of action.

Our contribution seeks to be supportive of the militants, who on a daily basis work to take up these challenges in their respective organizations.

This current issue is the last which will be produced with the support of Anne Vaugelade for the Spanish translation. We wish to offer her our sincerest thanks and we wish her success in her future endeavours.

We wish to reiterate our call to volunteers, in particular for the translation into Spanish. Nonetheless, we have decided to continue the publication of this newsletter in three languages (French, English and Portuguese), while waiting for volunteer translators to be able to present it in Spanish.

Francisco Botelho
Yvon Poirier
Martine Théveniaut

Communication and Utopia: promoting solidarity economy

Challenges of working in networks

The GRIL, a Research Group on Local Initiatives at Saint-Etienne University, Roanne (France) held on June 23, 2006 a French-speaking international conference entitled Communication and Utopia: promoting solidarity economy. The participation was constant throughout the day, with a hundred individuals. Six months after the 3rd International Meeting of globalisation of solidarity in Dakar, what are the theoretical and practical difficulties encountered by the actors promoting solidarity economy? How do we bring to life solidarity Utopia, within the organizations which promote it?

The diversity of the situations
The afternoon was devoted to workshops. One of them focused on Utopia in networks: how to give life to solidarity economy networks. The first fact noted was that the topic is in vogue. A new miracle cure against working separately within the same field. Certain participants live a network of close contacts, which organize themselves for self-production and eco-construction, and then analyze successes and failures. A coordination of fair trade testifies to the problems of internal cohesion which are created by differences of opinion. Others manage networks on a large scale: national, European and international levels. They raise the question of operating on large geographical distances, with a more or less strong proximity in terms of affinity of ideas or expectations regarding operations.

An attempt to define the term network
The definition suggested by Laurent Fraisse, researcher and coordinator of the Workshop on Solidarity Socio-Economy (WSSE) is as follows: “it is a method of organization asserted to carry out a collective action, founded on horizontal relations, personalized, of confidence. They are more or less formalized. The legitimacy of a network results from the effective participation in projects, in tasks. Its operation often depends on a mobilization, specific in duration, or for targeted activities of information, promotion, or realizing a particular action”. The density and quality of the relations within a network translate best the efficiency of a networked organization. If the relations are more or less intense according to circumstances, they are rearranged according to the objectives of the project. One of the indispensable conditions of the success of a network is the mutualisation of the resources (information, relationships, resources…), but it is very difficult in reality.

Why do we get involved in networks: objectives and realities?
Eric Lavillunière made a presentation based on his long experience as an organizer of networks, a French network on alternative solidarity economy (MB 2), then the European Confederation of Worker Co-operatives ”(CECOP), and presently at the European Institute for Solidarity based Economy (INEES) in Luxembourg. He highlights the reasons for organizing a network: to create visibility, mutualise, exchange the progress in practices, build a movement, find relays and thus understand better and be well grounded (in a community), to circulate information…

As a matter of fact, organizations in networks, whether they are formal or informal tend to reproduce centrality. Internal democratic vitality is often fragile, because maintaining healthy human relations within the organisation is seldom financed. Group leadership skills, links with the membership, the follow-up reporting and the circulation of exchanges take considerable time. The gap is likely to widen between those who have access to information and opportunities, and the others, recipients of periodic information which is not very useful. The tendency to become a consumer of a network, or to remain in a position of waiting for means to act, can impede active involvement. The systems of action in a network are complex, with multiple entry points and interdependence, with a strong relational dimension. The expertise tends to be concentrated on a limited number of individuals. In fact, the leadership of networks remains occupied by the same people, whether in the big federations inaugurated in the Fifties or Sixties, or in the more recent networks born from social economy and solidarity economy.

Another danger is specialization. The system of allocating means in the context of rare resources tends to overtake the internal project, the competition to accommodate the conditions of the financial partners, even between networks of the same sphere, contribute to generate suspicion rather than confidence. This prevents networks from benefiting from one another’s advances. Nothing facilitates cross-over relationships, the building of systemic approaches which would help clarify activities from a political standpoint, and which would encourage to look beyond the field of intervention and jurisdiction of each network.

And Utopia in all of that? The “How” of a networked organization must be able to attest above all, that it is at the service of the objectives of solidarity economy?
The crisis of participation and representation touches the political parties, worker unions and the systems of delegation and mandates in general. This crisis of confidence does not spare the networks of the solidarity economy. Do they make a difference? Of course their goals have their importance. However, the way in which they translate themselves in the form of organizations, the way they exercise their mandates, the transparency of their operations are also very important. The debate brings to light that many actors do not await any more a solution from above, that we cannot sacrifice the present for an eventual mythical revolution that would solve everything. “Utopia is perhaps quite simply doing what one says one wants to accomplish”. It is better to take the time to identify what hinders development, to point out “identify” disagreements, to understand their significance, to define the mandates and how to keep them into account, to incorporate the acquired knowledge and how to increase the capacity of action and influence. In sum, to put oneself in a situation of preventing the takeover of resources by a few persons, since this is the frequent cause of devitalisation followed by the death of networks.

How to pass from an ideal-model to the realization of a collective action in a network?
It requires paying as much attention to the processes as to the results to be obtained. The forms of representation have to be built. One cannot do without rules of the game. It is necessary to accept the difficulties of comprehension inherent to geographical distances, cultures, languages. It is also necessary to translate in the actions the willingness to be detached from the social systems which have produced and are still producing everyday the dominations of the centres over the peripheries, such as the pre-eminence of the speeches of the North on those of the South, of men over women in respect to positions of authority, the weight of the words of the older generation over the younger generations, of the experts over volunteer citizens for the access to resources… How can a third power be built in a democratic way? One should not despair about such concrete Utopias, because the results which they will succeed in obtaining will be used to light the way of the generation which arrives at the helm the world.

Martine Theveniaut
Participation notes from the workshop and intervention document by Eric Lavillunière.

Acts to appear (in French only), please contact IUT de Roanne, Communication, 20 avenue de Paris, 42334 Roanne cedex. E-mail:

Building networks: how to overcome the challenges?
Some ideas

Over the past years, the creation of international networks has considerably expanded in order to build an alternative globalization. Personally I’ve been involved in various projects, and I wish to share my insight in light of my ten years of experience.

I entirely share the progressive ideas debated at the workshop of the Roanne Conference (see the article in this issue). Nevertheless, my experience of the last years in Quebec as well as in Europe encourages me to push further the reflection, especially concerning the practical challenges which have to be overcome. In particular, I wish to share the lessons learned from failures in the construction of networks and organizations, in the hope that others will be able to avoid them in their own projects.

Fact 1: insufficient preparation
The majority of the organizations in which I have been involved were born in a rather spontaneous way. Often, it was quite simply because the idea in itself seemed good to maintain contact between people sharing the same ideals. However, all the literature on the question indicates that a first feasibility study is required, to make sure that all share the same objectives and values, which would subsequently avoid misunderstandings and confusion.

Fact 2: under-estimating the practical difficulties

The challenges of international networking are enormous, especially if the project is to work in several languages and in several areas of the world. If the question is not clearly put from the beginning, and if the means do not exist to overcome these challenges, the life of the network will be seriously disadvantaged. The disinterest of the members is likely to quickly distance them.

Fact 3: surpassing the level of organizing meetings
Several organizations and networks were created or proclaimed during large national or international meetings. Such occasions bring to life an intense solidarity, and the feeling of working to build a better world. However, experience shows that it is much easier to motivate many people to take part in these large meetings, than to support a network on a daily basis. Returning to their respective organizations and countries, few participants have time to get involved in new networks. Thus, the dilemma is as follows: does the network exist to organize meetings, or is the purpose of meetings to consolidate and develop the network? Except if its reason for being is to create occasions to meet like the WSF, a network whose purpose is only to organize meetings is vowed to disappear.

Fact 4: the insufficiency of human and material resources
There are three possible sources of funding: members, governments and NGO’s (or foundations). In spite of difficulties, certain networks in certain countries succeed in combining various financial sources in order to exist or survive. On the other hand, other organizations cease their activities for lack of funding, regardless of having a relevant vision and values. It was the case of the European organization DÉLOS (Sustainable Local Development), which was dissolved in 2003.

In the case of the international networking, the challenges are even greater. The funding coming from its members or governments (except for hosting events) is almost non-existent. It rests primarily on partnerships with international NGO’s. This presupposes a strong working relation to establish a partnership and maintain the autonomy of the network. Thus, it is important that the network and NGO’s agree mutually on relevant objectives or projects, for example the causes or activities to pursue.

The establishment of a coordination and leadership team dedicated to the support of the activities of the network is an essential condition for a regular functioning. Such a team, which can be centralized or decentralized, requires undeniable means.

Fact 5: difficulties in institutional life
We all know that healthy institutional life is a constant challenge in our own midst. The challenges become even larger at the level of regions and countries, because of the difficulties related to distances which require resources. The transition to the international level increases tenfold the difficulty, because the times of meetings are much spaced apart and it is necessary to work in several languages.

However, these challenges are not insurmountable. Electronic means of communication help to undertake these challenges, providing there is a sufficient level of resources, and the directing team makes information flow a priority.

Finally, the type of political direction which a network adopts needs to be well discussed beforehand and be very well established. In particular, it is necessary to take into account its specificity compared to a more hierarchical and vertical organization, which the network does not have the vocation to reproduce. It seems that the direction of a network must necessarily be collegial and decentralized.

In conclusion, it is important to stress that the enumeration of the challenges does not aim to cause discouragement, quite the contrary. I remain persuaded that the building of national and international networks is an indispensable tool to build a fairer and more equitable globalization. These statements of facts are intended to facilitate the task and to avoid pitfalls. Since it is precisely because this mission is so important, it is essential to carry it out well. Our means are limited and we cannot afford to waste our energies. Too many associations or networks have ceased their activities, because they lacked to take sufficiently into account the seriousness of surmounting difficulties. It is a collective damage.

In short, it is essential to ask the following three questions: Who? What? and How? Those like us, who have a view of building an alternative globalization agree relatively well on Who and What. However, my experience of the past 10 years has taught me that in the majority of cases, discussions on Who and What, discussions on interesting ideas and principles, while important are not enough. Not enough time is devoted to agree on the How. This question is left for later. I have even known organizations which proclaimed their existence without any discussion on How. This explains in good part certain failures which we have witnessed.

In order to ensure the durability of a network, it is necessary to deal with How as much as Who and What.

Yvon Poirier

Cancellation of the 4th Meeting of RIPESS
Announcement by Belgian organizations

SAW-B and VOSEC, the two organizations who were expecting to organize the 4th International Meeting of Globalisation of Solidarity next April (see our past newsletters), are announcing that it was not possible to meet the necessary conditions to hold this event as expected.

Nevertheless, they wish to be able to prepare the groundwork, so that the 4th Meeting can be held in another European country around 2009.

Other information will follow in forthcoming issues.


Our Newsletters are available on the WEB:

Special thanks to:
Évéline Poirier from Canada for the English translation
Anne Vaugelade from France for the Spanish translation

To contact us (for information, feedback, to subscribe or unsubscribe):
Yvon Poirier

No comments: