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Networks

Competent for the future

by Brigitte Villaronga
Knowledge is power. The knowledge of who may know something, how knowledge comes about and how it can be used and translated into action makes you competent and, at the same time, is a precondition for change. People who want to achieve goals have to be able to consciously and purposefully steer change, bring about compromise, reach consensus and enter into alliances. In order to influence structures and change organisations or even systems, actors need specialist knowledge and leadership qualities. [ By Brigitta Villaronga ]

The InWEnt alumni know what skills they need. After completing their programmes, many take the opportunity to exchange ideas and experiences with other experts and executives and to establish contacts. Cooperative networks have been systematically built in Latin America since 2004 on the initiative of InWEnt’s regional office in Lima. They are linked within their regions and are part of [email protected], an alumni network that spans all of Latin America.

It is essentially about mutual learning. Existing knowledge is cultivated and exchanged, new insights are gained and skills are acquired. Cooperation in networks, the development of social capital and the strengthening of institutions ultimately serve good governance and democracy.

Former participants from state agencies, civil society and the private sector interact in horizontal “communities of practice”. Quoting the hypothesis of Spanish intellectual Vicente Verdús, María Victoria Alvarez from Colombia states that interaction and horizontality are essential in a democracy. The alumna gave up a managerial position at the audit office in her home city Medellín because she was convinced she could make more of an impact elsewhere. Among other activities, the communication studies graduate now designs virtual training courses for InWEnt, and participates in dialogue and network activities.

From competitors to cooperation partners

By exchanging knowledge and experience and making it accessible, former InWEnt-participants contribute to the democratisation of knowledge. Thus their view of their counterparts also changes: competitors become cooperation partners. There are more collective actors and individuals involved in horizontal constellations than in vertical ones. Horizontality helps to solve complex problems sustainably.

It is not only new contacts and networks that emerge, so does trust. This is of particular importance because it is missing in many developing societies. Particularly in countries in which the state does not take care of the physical and social security of the individual, there is no trust in one another, in state institutions or in the system. Without trust, however, a living democracy is not possible. Democracy, moreover, depends on the rule of law.

Social capital can only develop on the basis of trust. A society that is lacking this capital stays sick, even if the economy continues to grow despite crisis.

So how do interpersonal trust and social cooperation come about? In addition to education, social values, social traditions and the experiences of community and collective cooperation are of utmost importance. Formal political institutions are unstable if they lack the social basis of a democracy-friendly civic culture and social trust.

Networks, which build bridges across social divides and between ethnic groups, are especially important. Constitutions, political institutions, parties and associations can be founded, built and organised at short notice. However, democratic values, trust and cooperation in society cannot be drafted on the drawing board of social engineers. Rather, they are learned, internalised and accumulated as social capital through long-term civil society engagement (Putnam, 1993).

As soon as informal norms, trust, civil engagement and civil self-organisation shape the communication of a society – in the form of social networks, for instance –, society, for its part, stabilises state forms of rule and the political institutions of democracy.

Increasing moral resources

Social capital helps to free many young democracies from mistrust and vertical social dependence (Putnam 1993, p. 181). This is because the use of “moral resources” – such as social trust and collective cooperation – does not deplete them but rather fosters their growth. The term “social capital” basically means that the more trust there is in society, the more likely social cooperation becomes, which again reinforces the trust of those involved.

Therefore, social trust is fed by two mutually reinforcing sources: reciprocity and cooperative networks. In democratic structures, accumulated social capital increases the stability, efficiency and quality of democracy. The more social capital is accumulated, the more likely the consolidation of democratic structures becomes. External actors who promote de­mo­cracy, the rule of law, good governance and development can also play a role – and especially where human resources (in economic terms) and personal skills (in social terms) matter.

Economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum consider these “capabilities” to be the core of a self-­determined life, a “good society” and sustainable democratisation. Development cooperation agencies, like InWEnt for example, can play out their strengths here.

Political scientist Wolfgang Merkel from the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) argues that by teaching social skills, promoting social trust among the disseminators of various groups and initiating and supporting cooperative networks, such organisations probably contribute more to development, welfare and democracy than large projects run by the IMF and the World Bank. There is even empirical evidence (Merkel, 2010), whereas the theoretical basis is provided by Sen’s considerations on the importance of personal skills (“capabilities”) and Putnam’s emphasis on the lasting impact of cooperative networks and social capital.

Mutual exchange

Alvaro Montes, a former participant from Colombia who works as a telemoderator and coordinator of InWEnt’s virtual training portal for Latin America, points out: “A large number of members of this lively alumni community are actively involved in the production of social capital and want more democracy in Latin America – at the local level and beyond. They are often small initiatives but over time, a dense network is created.”

Xinia Cerdes, teletutor at the open university UNED in Costa Rica, one of ­InWEnt’s partner organisations for developing e-learning capacities in the ­region, says: “Democracy knows no national borders, only ideological limits. The sharing of knowledge, experiences, dreams and options at all levels of abstraction is a tricky matter which can ­only work via networks.” Thus knowledge which would never have been brought forth in any other way emerges, and individuals and institutions which otherwise would not have come in contact with one another, grow through the exchange.

María Rosa Gamarra from Bolivia, member of the specialist network ­EducAL (E-Learning in Latin America), agrees with Cerdes: “A democracy is sustainable when it is legitimate, stable and effective. It has to consist of a fine interweaving of actions that different actors at several levels implement and which have the same goal and purpose.

Today, Latin America is at once the most democratic and the most unequal region in the world. In its current “post-transition” phase, in the search for its own (democratic) identity, much is possible. The pendulum could swing to “more substantial democracy” or to “disguised autocracy”. When it comes to implementing change, networking and mutual support among experts and executives from countries as different as Costa Rica, Bolivia, Colombia and Uruguay can be especially effective. This is a way to promote democracy in the region.