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Lesson #18: We need to further reflect on what makes networks and communities become vibrant learning mechanisms

participationThis reflection is part of the 20 lessons included in the paper Lessons learned on promoting better links between research and policy in Latin America

Our final set of lessons is related to building networks, communities and partnerships. This is a crucial topic for reflection in capacity building because these types of collaborations are increasingly regarded as fruitful spaces for continuous learning.

In effect, Spaces for Engagement was built on a strong belief in the value of working with others for co-producing and sharing knowledge that could transform the way research is used to inform policymaking. Thus, throughout its years of implementation we sought to create and sustain diverse spaces of continuous engagement: from trying to generate a network of policy research institutions in Latin America focused on the link between research and policy to forging different online communities to study this link in specific policy fields.

Some relevant activities in this sense include:

  • Creation of three online communities: DEAL (for Executive Directors of policy research institutions in Latin America, an online community on childhood and one on climate change (which was discontinued in 2013)
  • Partnering with organisations like Grupo FARO and ASIES to co-organize regional conferences, coordinate joint research calls, etc.
  • Facilitating discussions and sharing of knowledge in EBPDN Latin America

However, before delving into how these activities have worked, it is important to also highlight the distinctive nature of the partnership between GDNet and CIPPEC that has enabled the programme to continuously learn and enhance the focus is its activities. By working jointly for a long time, which was possible due to the ongoing support of GDNet to CIPPEC as regional partner, a fruitful relationship emerged based on trust and shared values. The long term commitment to the programme by GDNet allowed CIPPEC to become a regional player and develop its capacities to first play and now sustain this role which has been largely recognized by peer organisations in Latin America. This partnership became a fruitful strategy for the programme due to the following factors: 1) there was mutual trust and continuous efforts to understand each other’s interests, capacities, challenges, etc. so as to come up with solutions that worked for the benefit of both organisations; 2) ongoing debate and reflection on what should be done next and how; 3) long term commitment to the joint work by investing resources and developing internal capacities to ensure delivery of outputs and outcomes; 4) permanent identification of synergies and ways to complement each other so as to build on strengths and help mitigate weaknesses or face threats; and last by not least 5) belief on the value of social capital: the need to nurture personal relationships within the team that paved the way for collective spirit, shared enthusiasm, and common values that embedded decisions and activities developed under the programme.

The success of this partnership can be compared to less fruitful endeavors in working with others. The programme foresaw a significant amount of activities that aimed at building a community of engaged organisations that could share needs and interests.

Overall, although individuals and organisations immediately expressed interest in joining these initiatives, participation was very low. In fact, most members of networks and communities sporadically participated; this usually happened when what was being done or discussed was very tightly linked to their ongoing projects and commitments. It is very rare that people will find time to invest in this type of collaboration unless it is already aligned with what they are working on or if it is framed under a mid or long-term arrangement among institutions and/or individuals.

We thus found out that in developing countries very few organisations and individuals can commit resources (time and funds, especially) to produce and/or discuss existing knowledge on the link between research and policy. While there is a large interest in doing so, the fact that they seldom have spaces for reflection or resources and expertise to systematize what they learn significantly affect their potential to become active participants in communities and networks. Current larger endeavors like the Think Tank Initiative do present a good opportunity for a larger and more profound exchange of knowledge among this type of institutions. Also, we have a lot to learn from Northern organisations in terms of how to do it.