What makes civil society land networks effective and durable?

Cara Scott and Emmanuel Sulle
Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Networks provide an increasingly popular organizational structure for collective action on land rights in Africa and elsewhere around the world, but sustaining networks’ impact, engagement, and resourcing can be challenging.

There is widespread recognition that collective action amongst a diverse range of social actors is critically important to achieving lasting land reforms that put greater rights in the hands of local people. However, designing networks that deliver on their goals and that can be sustained over time poses a range of challenges. Recently, as part of an Africa Organizational Leadership Program(link is external) carried out by Maliasili(link is external), in collaboration with the International Land Coalition  (ILC)(link is external), we examined some of the common challenges facing civil society networks working on land rights, as well as some of the ways that successful networks overcome these challenges.

This initial research, which also draws on a growing body of knowledge around network theory and practice(link is external), found that in order to survive and flourish, networks need four things:

  1. Leadership. Land networks require skilled, passionate and committed leaders who can inspire people locally, nationally and globally with their vision, and can effectively challenge those in positions of power and influence when the rights of their constituents are not respected. Dynamic leaders will naturally attract more members and resources to their networks. Successful leaders also recognize the importance of grooming the leaders of the future to ensure their network is sustainable. The recent and long term achievements by leading indigenous peoples’ organisations in different parts of the world such as AMAN in Indonesia, in influencing, and challenging high levels of government as portrayed at the recent Global Land Forum 2018 clearly show why collective, networked leadership matters. It is now widely believed that the Indonesian President signed the Presidential Decree on Agrarian Reform on the first day of the Global Land Forum due to sustained pressure from indigenous peoples representatives, alongside other activist networks such as the Consortium for Agrarian Reform(link is external).  African networks have much to learn from these networks in terms of building strong collective leadership structures, developing succession plans, and building lasting trust within their constituencies. 
  2. Purpose. Networks need to establish a compelling common purpose among members, as this is instrumental in propelling them forwards. If different members of a coalition don’t want to work towards the same fundamental goals or ends, the network is likely to atrophy over time. It must also be clear how the role of the network and its secretariat is different from, and adds value to, individual members. If a network carries out similar activities as its members, it can wind up competing with them for the limited sources of available funding.  This can fundamentally damage trust and relationships with network membership. For example, from 2003 to 2009, the Kenya Land Alliance’s(link is external) (KLA) main goal was to ensure that Kenya had a National Land Policy that secured equitable access to land and natural resources. Using a variety of advocacy approaches, KLA worked with its membership and others to achieve an impressive feat – a chapter in the new (2010) Constitution of Kenya includes principles and provisions on land, property, environment, and natural resources. This showcases the potential of working through networks; when groups of organizations and actors join together with one shared goal and voice, they can achieve outcomes that are only possible through collective action.
  3. Resources. Networks need both people and money to achieve their goals. Members must demonstrate their commitment by being willing and able to finance their network and provide their time, particularly when networks are first becoming established. This can help ensure that networks endure and achieve impact, even if external financing dries up. Proper management of human and financial resources is also critical as mismanagement will inevitably lead to loss of trust in the network by funders and network members. This will deplete resources and threaten the survival of the network. There are also different ways networks can harness available resources from their members. Zambia Land Alliance, for instance, uses its members with various capacities and capabilities to undertake its advocacy and research missions. It also uses its board members to champion activities within their reach and preferences. 
  4. Accountability. Networks should be designed and structured in a way that it is accountable to its members and constituents. Networks should recognize the importance of playing a supportive role that allows their constituents to become active citizens that can stand up for their land and resource rights and hold both policy makers and civil society organizations to account for their actions and inactions. The ultimate goal of networks therefore, must be to enable citizens to be the drivers of change themselves. Active citizens are central in releasing the achievements of land networks. For example, after successfully advocating for the insertion of a land and environment chapter in the national constitution, the Kenya Land Alliance thought they had almost accomplished their mission. But, they immediately realised that having policy or laws in papers is one thing, but actual implementation of such tools may only happen if there are sustained efforts to implement them. Empowering citizens and the public is central to effective implementation.

These four pillars- leadership, purpose, resources and accountability are highly interdependent. If a network is missing one or more of them, it is unlikely to achieve its goals.

Many land networks face challenges in all these areas – any of which can mean networks fail to have a substantive impact. Despite these challenges, there is hope as a new generation of network leaders is emerging to drive them forward. With clarified missions, increased trust and adequate support, such networks are likely to thrive and bring about the change they are fighting for, in Africa and around the world.

First published on Land Portal on December 7 2018