KariaNet, Planning the future of networking in the Near East and North Africa region

This week from 3-4 April I had the opportunity to join thirty-one selected individuals from Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen who met in Cairo to discuss the sustainability of networking activities in the Near East and North Africa region. At the crossroads between East and West, networking is nothing new in the region. The exchange of goods, technology and ideas between cultures has been going on for centuries. But starting in 2005, IFAD and the International Centre for Rural Development, (IDRC) joined hands to use networking to improve the performance of their agriculture and rural development projects in a programme called the Knowledge Access in Rural Interconnected Areas Network, or KariaNet. The KariaNet approach, including collaborative research and capacity building, takes a page from a similar initiative between IFAD and IDRC in Asia and the Pacific called Knowledge Networking for Rual Asia/Pacific, or ENRAP.

But KariaNet, like ENRAP, is a development project. And stakeholders have been clear from the start that the external investments projects bring won’t last forever. So this week’s meeting focussed on what to do when this external financing comes to an end in 2013. To focus on this topic KariaNet commissioned a study by specialists in the field of networking and knowledge sharing, Heather Creech from the International Institute for Sustainable Development and Ziad Moussa from the American University of Beirut to look at the options for KariaNet’s future.

Stakeholders at the workshop were asked to evaluate the options set out in the study and come to a consensus about what they want to do between now late 2013 to secure future collaboration. While the study was referred to as the Devolution Study, what clearly captured the imagination of the network was not the devolution of network management and support responsibilities but rather the evolution of knowledge sharing and networking.

Virtually unanimous in their determination to carry on and improve knowledge sharing – irrespective of financial support they may or not receive from IDRC and IFAD in the future - the group concluded that what made sense to them was to focus on networking at the national level. Interestingly, this fit with the conclusions of the IFAD evaluation of ENRAP after Phase II and led IFAD to design ENRAP’s final phase focussing its support on improved networking amongst IFAD country programme partners.

As much as KariaNet participants are thirsty for new ideas from abroad, their priority is to build on the immediate benefits already experienced from knowledge sharing with colleagues working in the same agro-ecosystems with similar means of production, speaking the same language, and collaborating with the same ministries. In the ideal scenario they would also like to link to one another through an international or regional organisation to serve as a secretariat.

Though not discussed, it is interesting to note that results framework of the IFAD Strategy for Knowledge Management calls for just such participant driven regional networks, integrated with IFAD’s IT platform and linked to other thematic networks. In the region, KariaNet participants are themselves already linked or members of thematic networks like the Virtual Extension and Research Communication Network (VERCON) hosted by FAO or groups like the Association of Agricultural Research Institutes in Near East and North Africa (AARANINA).

In the implementation of the KariaNet and ENRAP programmes, IDRC has helped stakeholders to test and document a range of approaches to knowledge sharing through both capacity building and network facilitation. Over the years innovations introduced have ranged from participatory mapping, to writeshops, videography, systematisation, online discussion groups, learning alliances and learning routes. KS/KM amongst partners that have been mobilised by IDRC and IFAD in these efforts have included ICIMOD, FAO, ILEIA, ICARDA, and PROCASUR. Some are also working with IFAD stakeholders in Africa and Latin America. As networking and knowledge sharing improve within both regions, network members will be better able to share across regions.

Thanks to the initiative taken by Elaine Reinke at IFAD and her colleagues Hammou Laamrani and Layal Dandache at IDRC we could compare notes on past experiences between the two networks. An unintended outcome, was that by sharing experiences we were building the kinds of relationships and trust that makes a foundation for future networking between the networks. Connecting regional networks to make up a global community of networks amongst IFAD stakeholders once seemed quite remote. The prospects of that happening have just improved.