Mutual Capacity Strengthening in Influencing Networks

  • December 1, 2020

Oxfam Novib recently launched the book ‘Beating the Drum: Stories of Influencing Networks’. It explores the efforts of nine networks around the world to influence decision makers on a variety of issues (including land rights, SRHR, public health, and animal welfare). To make a deep-dive into some of the topics of the book, Oxfam Novib hosts a series of webinars. The second webinar, which took place on 17 November 2020, was on the topic of ‘Mutual Capacity Strengthening in Influencing Networks’.

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(C) NAHAB, Bangladesh

Reflections from Beating the Drum

The role of capacity strengthening in influencing networks was one of the learning questions in Beating the Drum. The nine networks together demonstrate that capacity strengthening  within influencing networks can take different forms and can happen in very deliberate manners as well as in a more ad hoc way. It is not a linear process and cannot always be pre-defined. Furthermore, several capacity strengthening strategies can strengthen each other (e.g. trainings aimed at increasing technical and thematic skills, and skills development by learning-by-doing).

Oxfam Novib defines capacity strengthening as the process through which individuals, organizations and societies obtain, reinforce and maintain the capabilities to set and achieve their own goals over time

The constitution of membership differs per influencing network. Diversity can exist for example in terms of function, geography, reach, representation, or expertise. Generally speaking, diversity among members of the network adds value in terms of capacity exchange and learning from each other through bringing in complementary skills. For instance, a story in the book showed the development of cultural and environmental awareness, by working together as a network of partners from different countries, which proved to be helpful in international advocacy meetings. This added value can also go beyond single influencing networks.

Capacity strengthening can be strongly connected to the dilemma of power. Power dilemmas can for example occur because of diversity in financial resources, or situations where one member is mainly ‘sending’, while others are mainly on the ‘receiving end’. To balance inequalities in power pro-actively while setting up capacity strengthening strategies, it is key to see capacity strengthening as a mutual process (instead of one-way or top-down). Furthermore, it helps to have clear governance structures in place in the partnership or network, that are representative of the diversity in the network. Also transparency and continuous reflection are helpful in balancing out power dilemmas.

Key learnings from five years of Strategic Partnership

From 2016 to 2020, Oxfam Novib and SOMO have a Strategic Partnership (SP) with the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called ‘Towards a Worldwide Influencing Network’. Oxfam Novib’s and SOMO’s approach has strengthening of the civil society as an essential cross-cutting element of the SP. Based on qualitative and quantitative data gathered over the past five years, key findings on how capacity strengthening is taking place are presented below.

Capacity strengthening is taking place in a reciprocal process where the capacities of all actors involved are strengthened through the exchange of knowledge and skills and through jointly implementing the programme. Through capacity strengthening, mutual learning is facilitated in a collaborative and collective process, where different actors bring separate knowledge, skills and networks to the table. Effective capacity strengthening often combines several strategies/approaches (e.g., exchange, dialogues, workshops and co-creation). The combination of approaches leads to synergies and mitigates one off capacity strengthening activities without the necessary follow ups.

Key to capacity strengthening is its mutuality and its reciprocal nature

Through the capacity strengthening interventions in SP, partners have reported increased capacities to operate (improved finances, HR, fundraising and MEL practices contributing to stronger organisations), to act (improved capabilities to develop and implement influencing strategies), and to connect (enhanced ability to form partnerships, strategic alliances and to link to the constituencies)1. Through the initiatives that aim to enhance technical skills and thematic knowledge, also soft skills are enhanced. Communication skills is one of the soft skills that has been improved during SP, which is highlighted as essential in connecting to alliance partners and the general public, as well as in influencing governmental and private sector actors. Another side-product of capacity strengthening interventions is confidence-building, which has enabled network members to speak up and engage more actively with duty bearers.

Finally, partners act as multipliers in sharing increased skills and knowledge more widely through their own networks and apply the increased capacities in other projects than SP. This ensures the sustainability of the capacity strengthening interventions as the organisations not only transfer learnings to others but also apply the increased capacities beyond SP and thus amplify the knowledge and skills2.

The full narrative on the Strategic Partnership’s capacity strengthening of civil society for influencing will be published in the beginning of 2021.

Capacity strengthening in practice

The work of two influencing networks was presented. The first case was from Wemos on the Global Financing Facility, presented by Rosana Lescrauwaet and Myria Koutsoumpa. The second case was from Oxfam on engaging the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). This case was presented by Shubert Ciencia.

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Wemos: At national and global levels, civil society organizations engage with each other through networks to enable mutual learning, undertake joint advocacy that reflects local experiences, and ensure space for civil society in the multi-level processes of the Global Financing Facility (GFF).

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) face several challenges when engaging with the GFF. These include lack of information on objectives and ways of working of the GFF, lack of technical and advocacy skills, and limitations in financial and human resources. Wemos works with networks at different levels to address these challenges. At the global level there is the Global Civil Society Coordination Group, which has an important role in informing, guiding, and supporting CSO engagement in the GFF process. At the national level (Netherlands) Wemos engages in a community of practice under the umbrella of Share-Net. At GFF recipient country level, Wemos directly engages with CSOs that follow the implementation of the investment cases that are co-financed by the GFF.

Throughout these levels network members share information, consult with each other, and where necessary, and possible, build consensus. A wide range of topics and expertise is exchanged, which reflects the diversity in membership. For instance, at the global level webinars, network meetings and annual workshops are organized. South-South learning is facilitated within the network by CSOs from one GFF recipient country visiting the other, and sharing experiences and facilitating workshops. These South-South learning efforts mainly address gaps in technical and advocacy skills.

The diversity in membership adds challenges, however, in terms of joint messaging and identifying the most effective level of advocacy. Joint analysis and knowledge sharing are essential in making the advocacy efforts inclusive. Lastly, diversity in capabilities and positions of partners naturally leads to differentials of power, as it relates to differences in access to information and decision-makers. To balance this out partners at all levels need to work together and commit to knowledge and information sharing.

ASEAN at a glance

Oxfam: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was established in 1967 and over years has evolved into an economic community of 10 member states to date. It focuses on the economic integration of the member states, with four mean objectives: 1) to create a single market and production base, 2) to become a competitive economic region, 3) to achieve equitable economic development, and 4) to achieve an economy that is fully integrated in the global economy.

Oxfam beliefs it should engage as with governance reforms lagging behind, economic integration might excessively benefit corporate interest and will lead to more resource grabbing which will escalate rising inequality. There are many opportunities, amongst others impacting 640 million people and leveraging policy-making, standard-setting and implementing actions. However, engagement is not easy, as amongst others ASEAN is a complex structure and is traditionally being hostile and averse to CSOs.

Effective ways to engage with the ASEAN include trust and relationship building in line with ASEAN values, being able to work from ‘inside’ and employing soft strategies, appreciating the ‘ASEAN way’ and highlighting convergence of interest, and setting up partnerships that could deliver results.

In 7 of 10 ASEAN member states Oxfam is present. Country-regional links are explored and a joint approach is defined. If Oxfam works with specific ASEAN member states, social movements, and other institutions, it is believed that they can better engage with ASEAN. By working together in a joint force, individual Oxfam country offices amongst others enhance their capacities to influence. Mutual capacity strengthening in engaging the ASEAN is mainly a learning-by-doing approach. Once every year network members are brought together to exchange strategies and learn from each other. Next to that capacity strengthening in terms of improving skills is mainly seen as a by-product of the collaboration process.

Lessons from the break-out groups

Participants went into smaller groups and had discussions around topics related to enabling space and a learning environment for mutual capacity strengthening; advantages and challenges of working in diverse networks; and how to practically balance power inequalities in networks. A few discussion points that were shared include:

  • To best enable space and a learning environment for mutual capacity strengthening in partnerships and networks, it helps to set-up the networks in a participatory manner as well as to ensure country ownership. It is helpful if there is a deliberate objective to do mutual capacity strengthening, which should be supported by both partners and donors. Platforms and recurrent meetings and linkages, where you can discuss topics as well as processes, also support mutual learning and capacity strengthening.
  • Challenges of diverse networks, including the formulation of joint priorities, objectives, and commitment, can be turned around with time, clear rules, and involvement of leadership into advantages, to build a strong voice, to mobilize local expertise, to be visible as a network and to be protected.
  • Power imbalances seem to be more prominent and appear more often in networks with multiple levels (local, regional, international) and in which there is cultural diversity. This can be balanced by sharing knowledge, sharing opportunities for resources, and leaving space for members to express themselves and take the stage – while respecting what ‘taking the stage’ means for different cultures. Sharing information, knowledge and opportunities empowers members in the network, as it allows to select themselves what is relevant and what to act upon.
  • When it comes to balancing out power inequalities, the ideal situation can differ from the practical feasibility (e.g., because of donor compliance or financial matters). Rather than talking about mutual capacity strengthening or exchange, it can be helpful to talk about partnership capacity – the joint capacity of all of those that are part of the network.
  • It is important to be aware of imbalances in who is defining or deciding what types of knowledge and expertise are important and should be strengthened. The way we talk about capacity affects how we act about it.
  • In all discussions about capacity strengthening, especially when talking about power differentials, it is important to apply a gender and intersectional lens to the approach.

We would like to thank the presenters and participants for this interesting session. If you’d like to watch the recording of this webinar, please send an email to

[1] Based on analysis of answers from 58 partners participating in the Capacity Assessment Tool Survey January 2020

[2] Ibid.


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