Kstar with civil society: brokering relationships instead of knowledge?

As key actors intersecting the knowledge-policy interface, knowledge intermediaries working with civil society and community organisations have a key facilitating role to play in policy and decision making processes. Drawing on personal insights from working within civil society and community organisations, this panel session saw David Phipps, Leandro Echt and Glowen Kyei-Mensah share key lessons for improving the impact civil society and community organisations within the knowledge-policy process.

Kstar with civil society

Mapping the role of civil society and community organisations as knowledge intermediaries

The rise of the information age, spurred by the increase in reach, power and impact of the internet, enabled knowledge to permeate across and beyond borders that were previously deemed impenetrable. Serving as a bridge between citizens’ voice and the policy process, civil society and community organisations have capitalised on this surge of freely accessible information seeing their role expand from that of mere service delivery to policy advocacy. A welcome shift, which with their substantial links to grassroots voices, means citizen’s concerns can seek to hold a permanent seat at the policy table.

This expansion of activities and increasing ability to influence institutional procedure has brought decision making out from the shadowy world of political boardrooms. As key actors working across the knowledge-policy interface, civil society and community organisations have thus ensured that the decision-making process has become less of a monologue and more of a dialogue.

However, civil society and community organisations are diverse in their mandates, action and composition, thus their needs for knowledge can vary widely depending on who they represent and what issues they address. What lessons can we learn from those working in the field?

David Phipp – Director, Office of Research Services at York University – reflected on his role in working with community organisations to mobilise knowledge and support new approaches that addressed persistent social challenges within the York region.

Successful knowledge mobilisation, for David, relies on strong partnerships. Building a meaningful relationship with community organisations maximises impact by enhancing the richness of knowledge, which in turn provides a greater opportunity to apply research to lived realities and experiences.

A point shared by Leandro Echt from Civil Society Directorate of the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies promoting Equity and Growth (CIPPEC). Working as a knowledge intermediary in a project which aimed to not only promote links between research and policy in Latin America but also promote south-south learning and collaboration between Latin America, Asia and Africa, Leandro felt the key to successful collaboration with civil society and community organisations was trust. A trustworthy relationship builds stronger foundations for future exchange.

Thus, perhaps working with civil society organisations throughout the policy-knowledge interface is about relationship – and not knowledge – brokering?

Adding to discussion, Glowen Kyei- MensahMwananchi project coordinator for Participatory Development Associates – discussed her role as knowledge facilitator in improving mental health policy in Ghana.  As outlined in her case study, Glowen explained the importance of the project stating:

“Mental illness in Ghana is surrounded by stigma and ignorance and this has resulted in severe marginalisation of mentally ill people.  People who suffer from mental illness are almost always subjected to social stigma and discrimination which excludes them from interaction, a place in their communities and happiness at home”

To address this stigma Glowen worked collaboratively with civil society partners and used photography as the lens through which to produce and record the thoughts, fears, and hopes – the personal knowledge – of mental health sufferers. This photographic documentary– which was brought together in the striking photobook ‘Ghana – a picture of mental health’ – was used as evidence in attempt to influence mental health policy and practice.

Kstar 2012: Glowen Kyei-Mensah shares her experience working in collaboration with civil society

For Glowen, collaborating with civil society organisations throughout the knowledge translation process worked well because they brought a new type of knowledge to the table. They produce dunique, vivid, and thought provoking content which, without victimising mental health sufferers, was harrowing, yet honest and got right to the heart of the needs and rights of people with mental illness in Ghana.

Nine lessons learned from Ghana, Argentina and Canada?

Three very different experiences, yet David, echoing points raised in an article prior to the conference, argued there are many commonalities to be found that transcend cultures and nations, which provide useful lessons for all.

Whilst commonalities exist, discussion revealed that we would be naïve in thinking we could apply these lessons anywhere and at anytime. Even through the principles may be the same, we need to adapt tools and lesson learning to local context.

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