How do you deal with mutual expectations in a network? What can you do to keep network partners enthusiastic?

PSO (Personnel Cooperation in Developing Countries) came to me with these questions in early 2010. Although networks receive a lot of attention nowadays, tools to deal with them are still lacking. The FAN Approach seemed promising. Would it work in the North-South context?


PSO is the umbrella organisation for Dutch NGO’s in development work, and focuses on capacity building. I was asked to design and facilitate a learning programme on networking in the North-South context; networks of donors from the North and idealists from the South.

Five NGOs participated:


  • NIZA, supporting IANRA (protecting natural resources in Africa)
  • SOMO, supporting OECD Watch (corporate social responsibility worldwide)
  • ETC, supporting Prolinnova (innovative small farmers, worldwide)
  • Free Press Unlimited, supporting ASTEKI (free media in Indonesia)
  • UNOY (United Nations young peace builders, worldwide) sent members of its Gender Working Group


Such networks are complex. They are born in the idealism of partners who have found each other in their ambition to make the world a better place. But since the funds come from donor countries, positions do not remain equal. Moreover, international NGO networks inevitably come into a stage in which some partners are very active while they have difficulty keeping others interested.


What can you do to make such "North-South Networks" healthier and more effective?

The first step was to make a Timeline in each of the networks. Since all networks had partners who were geographically widespread, we made use of meetings that were being held anyway, such as a general assembly or a steering committee meeting.


I guided the first Timeline session for IANRA in Maputo, Mozambique, where I instructed two African facilitators, Joseph Ssuuna (Uganda) and Richard Smith (South Africa) in the methodology. Afterwards, Joseph led the sessions for two other networks: Asteki in Indonesia and Prolinova in Ethiopia, and Richard led one for UNOY in Eritrea. I facilitated for OECD Watch in Paris.


The nice thing about the Timeline Method is that all participants have a say, and all opinions count. It brings participants to an equal level of understanding of the process they are engaged in.

Next, we asked each network to appoint a "core person", preferably from the South, to join the core group of the action research. In September 2011, during a week long workshop at MDF (Management for Development Foundation), in the Netherlands, they were familiarised with the tools in the FAN Approach, with which they could analyse the Timelines that had been made of their own networks.


They went home with action plans and the assignment to write a Learning History. This is a Timeline to which an analysis has been added.


In the period that followed we tried to keep in contact through an online workspace, email and Skype meetings. This turned out be more difficult than planned. Some core persons were quite successful, but the on-line peer consultations didn't really take off.


In light of this poor harvest we decided to invite the core persons back to the Netherlands, and to write their stories themselves in a guided setting. Sandra Hill (CDRA, South Africa) facilitated the “Writeshop” (blog post about it here).

The Writeshop approach yielded stories of personal experiences which are interesting to read. These have now been documented and published as “Looking at Collaboration in North-South Networks: Experiences From an Action Research”. We framed them in a booklet with our hopes at the start, the way we worked, and at the end a number of conclusions.


The issues that stood out most related to the concept of the Free Actor. It appeared  to be a liberating concept. The key people appreciated the FAN approach as a new and useful way of looking at what they were actually doing. Some of them reported that they had subsequently used the tools more often, for example in workshops they conducted.


The action research was not about testing the FAN approach, however. It was about searching for ways to make North-South networks function better. One of the lessons we learnt was that in another similar action research it would probably work better to concentrate on on-the-job coaching from the onset and then introduce the tools gradually, as the need arises.


How to provide a good structure for such on-line coaching? That's what I'm looking for next, together with my collaborators in this research; Koen Faber from PSP and Ger Roebeling from MDF.



ETC International
Free Press Unlimited
OECD Watch


Faber, K., Wielinga, H.E., (2011): Looking at Collaboration in North-South Networks: Experiences From an Action Research
Final report “Healthy Networks Learning Programme”, 2010 – 2011. PSO, Den Haag.