Cultivating Knowledge to Strengthen Civil Society's Effectiveness
Civil society in Africa is a powerful force for social change through its contributions to strengthening service delivery, public accountability, policymaking processes and sustainable development. It is a recognised resource hub of ideas, discussions and learning around various human development issues. Even though its role is often acknowledged and celebrated, the sector’s capacity to effect and affect social change remains weak
Knowledge is a valuable strategic asset that is cultivated through diverse human interactions such as education, professional experience, language, gender and specific socio-cultural distinctions. Knowledge production and dissemination are essential functions of civil society. Nonetheless, the sector is bedeviled with knowledge management deficiencies, inadequate capacity to conduct evidence-based research, policy influencing shortfalls and dearth in the capacity to document and apply contextual knowledge. Coupled with these challenges is civil society’s inability to document and share its experiences and strategies that have yielded productive results for its activities.
Civil society, as the representing sector of the people, has been conferred the power to collate and communicate knowledge to influence change in practice or behavior. Within the African context, civil society’s peculiar role positions it to produce alternative knowledge on the social, economic, cultural and political conditions within various and specific constituencies. Therefore, it is strategic for civil society to invest in developing proficient strategies for identifying, developing and applying the knowledge assets it needs to remain relevant and effective. There is a growing call from activists for the sector to invest in creating and harvesting knowledge networks, processes, methods, tools and technologies. It is envisaged that this will enable sector players to learn, create new knowledge, and apply knowledge in an efficient and effective manner.
It is essential that civil society periodically evaluates its capacities to produce and store knowledge that would spur an effective response to pressing societal issues. As significant producers of knowledge, civil society in Africa have a duty to be active contributors and consumers because of the compelling relationship that exists between contextual knowledge and policy influencing processes. Specifically, civil society organisations (CSOs) ought to interrogate, unravel and modify existing knowledge, as appropriate, to ensure it remains applicable within an ever-changing and complex development environment.
In this context, CSOs must find their niche within traditional knowledge production centers such as universities. In West Africa, the gap between academia and civil society is largely lamented but hardly addressed. Increasingly, it has become incumbent upon civil society to lay out strategies that seek to bridge the gap with academia. This process would necessitate a give-and-take from both sectors whereby theoretical analysis informs civil society practice, which in turn is harnessed into academic theory. This process will comprise a rigorous examination of the state of knowledge on the sector and what it means for the future of civic engagement. A key action that needs to be taken to catalyze this process would involve assessing existing knowledge and identifying trends in data collection, analysis and communication on civil society in Africa. It is imperative that these capacities are enhanced to facilitate a more systematic commitment to documentation, learning and policy influencing.
Therefore, systematic and strategic actions need to be taken to boost the capacity of civil society to manage the vast amounts of data that it produces. Additionally, traditional knowledge hubs must understand and accompany civil society in its quest to produce alternative knowledge that is rooted in practice and unbound by rigorous methodology processes. This support would trigger effective decision-making, integrated learning and innovative social change to shape civil society’s knowledge production and dissemination capacities in these ways:
Enhancing Decision-Making Capabilities: The sector contains a wealth of information. However, activists are often overwhelmed and lack the skills for processing to achieve high-quality decisions. CSOs must consciously create knowledge management systems that can help activists to analyze and share information and improve their decision-making.
Integrating Learning and Reflection: CSOs have been grappling with making learning and reflection routine through documentation of experiences. CSOs must create a culture where activists continuously assess their effectiveness, programme results and operational strategies, searching for ways to improve. Furthermore, sources of learning for civil society must be broadened to include external sources such as content produced in academic settings. This approach to capturing learning from experience as well as from theoretical analysis builds knowledge that can then be used to streamline operations and improve processes.
Stimulating Innovation and Social Change: Actively managing knowledge within civil society can also stimulate innovation and social change by encouraging the free flow of ideas. These ideas must be harnessed and shared through focused interactions, communities of practice and dialogue sessions. Deliberate programs must be developed to help activists embrace change and encourage ideas and insight, which often lead to innovation and fosters inclusive development.
Improving decision-making, harnessing learning and reflection and advancing innovation and social change is critical to civil society’s relevance, legitimacy and influence. Therefore, civil society must increase its effectiveness by embracing intentional methods of managing the knowledge it generates by collecting data and findings from its work, reflecting on them, sharing insights, and using them to innovate and improve practices, programs, and processes.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of activists to proactively collect, reflect on, share, and integrate knowledge and insights to improve practices and programs within the sector. The future value of the sector will largely depend on its ability to capture and apply the collective know-how of all its members, as well as that of other sectors as relevant to society’s pressing issues, in order to advance its influence and socio-economic relevance.
*The Authors, Matel Sow, Programme Officer, WACSI’s Knowledge Management Unit & Charles Kojo Vandyck, Head, WACSI’s Capacity Development Unit