The Art of Networking – A study of civil society networks in Myanmar

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

In Myanmar, civic and political space for civil society has opened up following government reforms in 2011. The loosening of restrictions on the freedom of expression and freedom of association has been key in these reforms. Since then, the number and engagement of civil society organisations has grown. As more civil society groups and organisations became active, many developed linkages and formed networks to work together on common agendas.

This study focused on in-­‐depth case studies of four civil society networks – the Myanmar Alliance for Transparency and Accountability (MATA), Myanmar Legal Aid Network (MLAW), Civil Society Forum for Peace (CSFoP) and National Network for Education Reform (NNER) – to illustrate how civil society organisations have come together in networks to be able to advocate for change within a challenging environment. The study aimed to:

  • provide an understanding of how civil society networks have formed and how they are functioning
  • assess the achievements and challenges of working as a network
  • identify good practice areas on how networks organise and manage

 

Development of civil society networks

Formal civil society networks first emerged in the country in the mid-­‐2000s. Among the earlier networks were those established to address the political, social and economic injustices of the military government  that responded ruthlessly to internal dissent. This led these early networks to go into exile or, if remaining in the country, go underground  where they stayed informal and diffuse. With  the inflow  of international assistance     for HIV  in the early 2000s, numerous formal networks were established representing populations affected by    HIV. Civil society activity increased in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and a number of networks were formed that focused on coordination and resource mobilisation, including a number of township-­‐level networks.

With the opening of space for civil society after 2011, numerous policy advocacy networks were formed. Despite the increased openness, many organisations found that, individually, they still had little influence at the national policy level or on private businesses. They thus came together to identify innovative ways to overcome these challenges. The formation of a network creates a ‘virtual space’ through which civil society organisations can raise their voices. Even when the networks do not have a physical space at the discussion table, they are able to use other means to raise their issues. Networks have used international initiatives and conventions to legitimise their formation and their activities. Some find the space to engage by rallying around new laws, policies and processes.

The national policy networks studied were often formed by leaders or organisations that already had the trust of civil society organisations. These leaders were instrumental in bringing people together and creating the inspiration and common vision for organisations to work together. Often the impetus for forming a network is a forum, conference or workshop bringing together civil society organisations around a specific issue. These events, where participants from different parts of the country come together, are a catalyst for creating the enthusiasm and commitment to join hands to work together. Regional members are an important element of national networks. They enable networks to stay embedded within the communities, gather updated information and stay in touch with the situation in different parts of the country. They also help to share information on national policy and monitor policy implementation on the ground.

While some networks remain informal, the transformation into more formal civil society networks often leads to the institutionalisation of the relationships and the development of governance and management bodies and processes to manage them.

 

Reasons for forming networks

Many of the civil society networks in Myanmar have policy advocacy as one of their key functions. Other functions of networks include: sharing information; capacity building and mutual learning; coordination of activities; joint action and joint strategy. The main reasons for civil society actors to work together in policy advocacy networks are the ability to have a voice through strength in numbers and to minimise risks for individual members in confronting power holders. Many regional members join national networks to be able to influence national policy. Networks also bring together different types of actors to draw on their different strengths and expertise and to expand coverage of an initiative.

Characteristics of networks

One of the key strengths of the networks studied has been their ability to bring together civil society actors from different regions, and different religious, ethnic and professional groups with different approaches and ideologies. Networks are often built on informal social networks and are made up of actors who already have some previous linkages, so there is often a strong level of trust among the initial members. While the networks seek to be participatory and representative in their structures and processes, there are often informal leaders who have a strong influence on decision making. The formation of a more formal network often leads to establishment of structures and may change how members relate to each other.

Internal relationships are usually centred around a central decision making body and a coordination unit. Among the four networks studied, three have established coordination offices/secretariats to coordinate and manage the activities of the network and one is in the process of establishing a coordination unit. While a coordination office is often needed because members do not have time to manage the activities of the network, the formation of a coordination office can complicate relationships within the network. Where there is a coordination office, communications among members often go through the coordination office. Members may interact more closely within thematic groups or regional networks but relationships between  these groups tend to flow through the coordination office. Regional networks tend to be relatively autonomous of the national network although the capacity of different regional networks may vary.

Networks themselves reach out externally. The ability of networks to draw on the large set of their members’ existing linkages is a key strength. Relationships with government are particularly important for policy advocacy networks. The four networks studied have found ways to establish formal and informal links with the relevant target government entities, building on the members’ existing relationships. Most networks have also established strategic partnerships with other organisations that can strengthen their influence and credibility and enhance their technical capacity. At present, most networks still depend on external donors for funding. The networks studied are conscious of the implications of donor funding on their internal dynamics and advocacy positions.

Network achievements

As relatively new entities working in a complex political environment, the networks studied have done well to represent civil society and community voices on issues that are still highly sensitive. MATA, CSFoP and NNER use their regional networks to gather input from states/regions to feed into national discussions. These mechanisms ensure that positions taken are shaped by the members and the communities they work with.

Some networks have conducted research and collected documentation to collect evidence from the community to strengthen their advocacy efforts, but this is still limited.

An important achievement of the networks studied has been their ability to adapt and find innovative ways to influence power holders within a challenging political environment. By working together, the networks become more visible and they are more likely to be heard. Even when they are not officially given a space in national level processes, they cannot be ignored. Except for MATA, the recognition however, is not institutionalised and can thus be easily reversed.

 

Even though there was more space for civil society to engage with power holders following the 2011 reforms, the engagement did not necessarily lead to desired changes. The government held many consultations with civil society, but the inputs were not always incorporated in the final outputs or actions. All the networks studied feel that they have had an impact, formally or informally, on their key advocacy targets – the Legal Aid Law, the National Education Law, the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement and the first Extractive Industry Transparency Index (EITI) report. These laws and documents are, however, only the first step in a long process

to effect change on the ground.

 

While there are many benefits to forming and being part of a network, networks are complicated organisations and many have faced challenges in establishing appropriate structures and undertaking actions to maintain the interest and solidarity of members. A network’s structure and form will depend on its own circumstances. This study, however, identified some ways that the networks have overcome the challenges faced and presents a number of good practice areas for how networks can organise and manage relationships.

Based on the analysis of the findings, the study also recommends some ways the networks can further strengthen their activities:

  1. National networks should place more emphasis on strengthening their regional
  2. Policy advocacy networks should strengthen their research and documentation
  3. Networks should advocate for equal status and stronger formal recognition of civil society and participate in state
  4. Networks should establish stronger monitoring and evaluation

 

This study focused on functional aspects of networking within an organisational framework. To complement and build on this, it would be useful to conduct further study on the socio-­‐psychological aspects of networking to understand better how individuals act and interact in networks and how networking can empower individuals to create social movements for change.

With a new government installed in 2016, Myanmar will continue to undergo rapid change. As the country looks forward to this new, optimistic period, networks can play an important role in helping to shape a development agenda that is owned by the people. Networks will need to be able to adapt to the changing situation, to harness their members to find innovative strategies and responses – to continue the art of networking.

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