One of the fields of action of PRIA, the Society for Participatory Research in Asia, is the organization of Regional Support Organisations (RSO) that work together with hundreds of NGOs at local levels to prepare rural communities for self-governance. Activities are designed to pave the way for local elections and train local delegates in the techniques of planning and local participation. These RSO, in turn, have joined in a network in order to mutually benefit from their experience and to professionalize their staff. Prabhat Failbus, senior manager of PRIA’s International Academy of Lifelong Learning, describes the development of this network.
A diversity of purpose and origin exists within voluntary development organisations and ngos. they vary in purpose, style of functioning, size and scale; they also vary in the very manner of their structuring, funding and outputs. Some of these ngos are representative organisations of their members, some others work directly with local communities to promote local development. It is this enormous diversity which requires an innovative approach to facilitate communication among them, should it be necessary to work together. this is the rationale for the widespread use of networks for communication across various types of actors of civil society. when individuals, groups or organisations want to communicate with each other, without surrendering their autonomy, without becoming full-time employees or members or subordinates to a larger entity in order to pursue some common development agenda then these linkages assist in communicating, sharing information, and finding out about each other. this is the rationale for creation and sustenance of a network. the issues around which a network is formed vary a great deal and so does the level of the networks. yet, they all share the purpose of mobilizing new energies, building linkages and communicating across diverse actors of the civil society in pursuit of strengthening its role in people-centered development. Influencing public policy as a purpose of many networks also promotes the role of civil society in people-centered development.
A comprehensive review and reflection of PrIA’s programmes and role carried out in 1989 established the importance and relevance of regional support organisations. It became clear for PrIA that it must actively work towards strengthening existing regional support organisations, help in creating new ones for carrying out similar functions with a large number of grassroots organisations in different parts of the country. regional support organisations did not necessarily work at the grassroots directly with the poor and marginalized but supported grassroots organisations in terms of research, trainings, documentation, advocacy, networking and so on. these support organisations have not been mere service providers; they have been partners in the broader movement of social change.
The idea of forming NCRSO, a network of these support organisations, arose through the growing need for a coordinating frame work to take joint decisions with the objective of supporting each other and to strengthen the support functions of regional support organisations. while forming the network, it was also realized that capacities and strengths differ amongst the regional support organisations and this forum could be used for sharing and developing specific skills. this kind of joint effort was also felt essential to be able to deal with the fast changing environment and hence be able to make an impact in areas of expertise and competencies needed among the organisations.
The common interest of the membership of this network, NCRSO, lies in the following principles and values as articulated by the members themselves:
Further, the members of the network believed that the following goals were better achievable through this effort:
In addition, NCRSO also identified common programmes like capacity building, institutional development information dissemination, research and documentation, material production, networking, monitoring and evaluation for achieving the above stated goals.
It is significant to mention that PRIA played an enabling and facilitating role in establishing regional support organisations as well as in the formation of NCRSO. the major responsibility of coordinating and upgrading the skills and capacities of members was initially with PrIA, then, with the formation of the network, this responsibility has been shared amongst others. In addition, PrIA also extended financial help through small grants to the members mainly for the follow up of joint activities undertaken, and to allow space for experimentation and exploration of new ideas.
The relationships between the PRIA and the members have been governed by mutually agreed principles and common purposes of the network. Members have contributed positively by providing their time, energy and expertise for the activities of the network in terms of capacity building, documentations, and advocacy related work. network members have also complemented each other by providing necessary support in terms of their specific skills. the network has also contributed in perspective building of the members and their capacity building in different areas of organisational management. Members also get a sense of solidarity through the network. the network has been able to provide macro and wider development perspectives to its members. NCRSO has played a significant role in promoting new networks of civil society organisations and strengthening existing networks. this experience suggests the significance of support functions to the networks of civil society organisations at the district, state and national levels.
However, NCRSO also recognizes certain challenges for the future. the first is the support function of the civil society sector as a whole, especially in the context of shrinking space for civil society engagement and declining resources. In addition, opportunities for partnership among civil society organisations, government and the market have begun to emerge which will require special initiative and capacity to expand its support to such partnerships for the common good. Also, the need for expanding support for policy research and advocacy cannot be overstated. this role has become crucial for civil society, and the capacity to play this role is very weak on the ground. ncrSo, as a network of regional support organisations, can only play a meaningful role in the future if the network members continue to revitalize themselves in response to the emerging challenges as well as build their own capacities on an ongoing basis.
Funding has been an important issue for networks, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, funding is essentially required for maintaining a small secretariat for the functioning of the network, and secondly for implementing joint activities. unlike bigger and established organisations, smaller organisations find it difficult to contribute to the cause of their networks. external funding will have to be sought for maintaining the network and its joint activities and programmes. the sustenance of networks would depend on the nature of their work and the ability of the networks and their members to mobilise the required resources internally and externally. However, the members of networks need to contribute to the core funding for proper functioning of the network.
PRIA and the network (NCRSO) have contributed immensely in the process of social change by adding value to the Adult education work. on the one hand, the network has built the capacities of its members, and on the other hand, network members have built the capacity of grass roots organisations engaged in the development of poor and marginalized communities. the benefits of capacity building efforts based on participatory approaches have gone directly to the adult population as main recipients of the programmes.
It is significant to mention that PRIA and the network have worked for strengthening the institutions of local self-governance as promulgated under the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments from 1995-2002. under this programme, PRIA and the network implemented such activities as the Pre-election Voters Awareness campaign, the Panchayati raj Awareness campaign, Strengthening of gram Sabhas and Micro planning in gram Panchayats in 18 states of India. the pre-election campaign included street dramas, meetings, poster and pamphlet distribution, rallies etc. covering more than one million adults (eligible voters).In addition, network members also mobilised another 3000 grassroots organisations for carrying out these activities in different parts of the country. PrIA and the network also trained 50,000 elected representatives using participatory training methodology. Such involvement clearly indicates the importance of the network as well as of Adult education in social change processes.
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