What can Groucho Marx tell us about being a member of the Start Network?
It’s only four years since Start Network was formally launched with its first 19 members, and less than three since the Start Fund, our best-known programme, got off the ground. By the middle of this year our membership had more than doubled to 39, and earlier this month we formally welcomed three further agencies to the network.
Like most of our 23 newer members, Caritas Sri Lanka, Cordaid (The Netherlands) and PROVIDA (El Salvador) are from outside Britain, adding weight to our claim to be a truly global network. We welcome them, and the fresh perspectives they will bring as we lead for change in the current humanitarian system.
The American film comedian Groucho Marx once said he refused to join any club that would have him as a member - a good joke that none the less provokes some interesting questions. What does it mean to be a member of any organisation and why would anyone want to join one? Why do agencies from five different continents want to know and join Start Network? What advantages do they receive by doing so - both now and in the future - and what else do they gain?
These important questions go to the heart of what Start Network was created for. The humanitarians who came together to found our organisation had a shared view about why it was needed: because, they believed, the existing humanitarian system had so many failings that it was no longer fit for purpose. And the best way to begin transforming that system was to work collectively - partly because together they’d have a louder voice with which to articulate the need for change, and partly because together they could begin to change things themselves.
The desire to help make that change is what all our members have in common - it is, in effect, what they affirm when they decided to join Start Network. Along the way they can participate in our specific programmes, and draw value from the extraordinarily rapid funding of humanitarian need that these can offer - the Start Fund being the most obvious example. But the greater value comes not from any cash that may flow through our members’ books, but from the experimenting and learning that we are all engaging in together.
We’re learning to think about humanitarian aid in unfamiliar ways; to work differently to devise and deliver it; to collaborate more radically and effectively; and to ask challenging questions, of ourselves and of existing humanitarian institutions, about how power can be better distributed within the system. All these bring benefit to members that participate - as individual staff members, and ultimately whole organisations, acquire the skills and experience needed to operate in the new humanitarian economy that is beginning to evolve.
You don’t need to take my word for it - listen to what members have been telling us about their own experience.
Asar Muhammad, Resilience and Humanitarian Response Coordinator for Mercy Corps in Pakistan, recalled the moment earlier this year when he first attended a meeting of a new Start Fund in-country decision-making group.
“There were 18 or 19 people there, all already involved with Start Network. Most I knew, except one or two. The point was, we had never come together as allies before, in something where we were not competing but collaborating - making joint decisions and agreeing on a common agenda.
“Start has given us that opportunity. It has different teams and funding available, and we made our first application together for an anticipatory alert… Talking about Start also gave us the opportunity to touch base on other things. Now we have a Skype group to discuss opportunities inside and outside Start. Another agency was told by a development bank that it would like them to become a part of Start.”
Ram Kishan, Christian Aid’s regional emergency manager for South Asia, said:
“We don’t look at the Start Fund as a donor. We look at it as a learning platform.” Speaking to an independent MEL team researcher who was following up on a flood alert in Tamil Nadu, he added: “Peer review and joint monitoring and learning during the project… is very useful. Each agency visited the other to find strengths and gaps. This hadn’t been done before Start Fund, and we liked it.”
ActionAid's Women Friendly Space, Moria Camp, Lesvos, Greece
Taking part in committee decisions, making proposals for possible interventions, joining workshops and conferences or simply responding to Start Fund surveys following an alert - all this takes time. So does the deeper degree of collaboration demanded by our larger-scale programmes, like the refugee crisis response in Greece and the Balkans that absorbed the energy of 12 of our members, and brought scores more local partners into the discussion.
But that time invested is repaid over and over. First, our new ways of working are delivering better humanitarian outcomes - something all our members want. At the most elementary level, greater collaboration gets results. Violeta Niceva, who was involved in assessing the European refugee response for Save the Children, described how three agencies working together at the Macedonian border effectively divided their labour to get the best results.
One had the best working relations with the government agency in charge of two transit centres; another could quickly secure essential kits of non-food items; between them they got supplies to the Serbian side of the camps where local partners were able to give them to those in need. Simple enough, but not happening before - and it made all the difference. “Start Network was one of the best things to happen to the transit centres,” she said.
Second, those taking part in the process are acquiring new experience, new outlooks and new skills - as we hear, time and time again, from those involved. Eta Mbong Ngole, also of Save the Children, was among those asked to manage the Ebola programme in West Africa, aimed at preventing the disease from spreading across neighbouring countries. It was an opportunity to gain new skills, he told us recently, and the first time he had ever had to organise a multi-country response.
“I learnt to coordinate a response through the management of the Ebola Preparedness Project,” he said. “I’m now managing a consortium response in Nigeria that I feel better equipped to oversee, based on my experience with that project and the lessons from Start Network’s Ebola programme."
Others tell us they feel they have grown personally as humanitarians after participating in Start Fund decision making, simply through the process of considering competing projects objectively alongside colleagues of what are often seen as rival agencies.
Start for Change 2016 Annual Conference
And third, the time invested by agency staff yields dividends to their whole organisations. Members tell us repeatedly how they’ve been able to work with a wider range of other NGOs than before they began to participate fully in the Start Network. They know more of them; they are becoming more experienced at working with them; and they are acquiring the organisational skills needed to raise this collaboration to a higher level. As the humanitarian system evolves in response to growing demands for change, acquiring such skills will enable our members to thrive and to lead, to be agile and resilient - rather than to risk stagnating, and be left behind.
For many, however, there is even more. Start Network is at the leading edge of developing new ways to finance humanitarian assistance. It wants to shift the sector from reaction to anticipation, and to find new ways to finance intervention that move beyond the current, donor-driven model. The opportunity to be involved in this kind of work and thought, some members say, is worth more than all the programme funding put together.
Norman Steinmaier is deputy head of humanitarian assistance at Welthungerhilfe, which joined Start Network last year and is already playing an active role in its committees and working groups in several countries. He’s worked in international development for 25 years, 11 of them in Africa. In September, his organisation won its first funding through the Start Fund - £60,000 for flood relief in North Korea.
“Some people might say that’s not much. But funding is only a small part of the value to us of being a member of Start Network,” he told us recently “It’s only 30 per cent, at most. The real value we see is in everything else that you do - the innovative agility, the new ideas and initiatives.
“We’re too small to have our own research and development units. We can’t have a think tank like the big, ‘family’ organisations. For us Start Network is a means to access new thinking, and that is worth a lot - to our staff as individuals, and to Welthungerhilfe as a whole.”
As our 42 Assembly members leave London following meetings last week (a meeting of the Assembly, Start Fund Commitee and Council and two DEPP collaboration days), it’s an important moment for the Start Network. We are debating how best to go forward into 2017, we are discussing how our work fits into the bigger picture of change we want to achieve - and we are looking ahead to what our network may look like in a decade’s time.
What’s certain is that the appetite to build a new humanitarian economy is growing, and together we will be at the forefront of this global push for change. Being a part of that, and helping to understand and shape it, is not a cost, it’s an investment. The opportunity it gives all our 42 agencies to lead, and to learn, is the real return on being a member of Start Network – now, and even more so in the future.