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					United Nations Development Programme
Sub-Regional Resource Facility - Arab States




    Desk Research on Regional Communities of Practices


                             Beirut, 25 June 2004




                                       1
                            Executive Summary

Background and methodology
This report is a desk review of Communities of Practice (CoPs) in the Middle East
and North Africa (MENA) region, which aims to take stock of existing regional
networks and communities of practice and provide an overview of the extent of their
depth and spread.
Another broad aim of this review is to analyse the experience of establishing and
nurturing CoPs and networks in the region and identify their main challenges.
The review also explores the difference between CoPs and networks and outlines the
profile and experience of current CoPs in the MENA region.

Definition of a CoP
A review of existing definitions of a community of practice point to the following
three principle commonalities, considered the main features of full-fledged CoPs:
     Informal groupings of professionals
     Main focus on learning and exchange of knowledge – a common sense of
        purpose and a real need to know what each other knows.
     Emerge of their own accord, independent of original structures and highly
        non-hierarchical.

In summary, a community of practice is a virtual forum where practitioners “meet”
and exchange knowledge distilled from their practical and professional experience. A
CoP cannot exist if its members do not perceive any positive gain from their
affiliation.

Between March and May 2002, 140 individuals and organizations involved in
development in the MENA region were contacted in order to gather information. 36
CoPs/networks responded in detail to a questionnaire. In June 2004, information
concerning 34 of the 36 CoPs was updated. The report analyses and comments on
their responses and uses these in the subsequent conclusions and recommendations of
the study.

Summary of the findings
The analysis of the data provided by respondents allows us to draw the following
findings and conclusions:

* Central theme
The predominant themes for networks/CoPs are women and gender equality, human
rights and democracy, and sustainable development. These themes are in line with the
priorities of a large segment of the NGO sector in the region and within the
international aid community.

Interest in networking for knowledge exchange around other themes appears to be
minimal and has mainly originated from professionals involved in fields of work such
as water management, information technology, business promotion, the media, etc.
There is also a close correlation between the establishment of the surveyed CoPs and


                                          2
the regional activities that the UNDP, World Bank, the European Union have
undertaken in the past to encourage and strengthen the setting up of think tanks and
the exchange of experiences.

* Affiliation
Several of the reviewed networks/CoPs are affiliated to foreign organizations. Some
others consider themselves to be independent NGOs and/or newly established CoPs.
However, most surveyed networks received some level of external support from
international or local organisations, which has allowed them to operate.

* Country base
Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are the three most popular host country for regional
networks/CoPs, also a hub of civil society activity in the region. Other host countries
of the ME region, are Palestine, Saudi Arabia,and Tunisia. The review could not
identify regional networks in other Gulf and Maghreb (North Africa) countries.

* Membership and profile
Membership varies from a small number (less than 25) to several hundreds. Low
membership appears to be due to the highly specialized nature of the networks or their
recent establishment.

The more established networks/CoPs, that enjoy stronger external links have in fact a
wider membership base. The diverse profile and background of members of certain
CoPs is an interesting finding and provides good opportunities for learning and
exchange.

* Depth
There are very few groups that possess all the elements of a community of practice as
it is defined above. Most networks have not yet developed ways of codifying and
archiving the knowledge that is shared. Still others are highly structured and do not
seem to allow for the free exchange of information.

* Strategies and Activities
Surveyed networks described themselves as both reactive and interactive.
Furthermore, most CoPs consider themselves to be involved in both policy and
practice. When reviewing their strategies of interventions and activities, it was
evident that networking for the purpose of learning takes on different forms in the
region. However, these activities are mainly conventional combining meetings,
conferences and the exchange of information through publications and newsletters.
The use of information technology such as chatting and conferencing through website
remain extremely limited. The review was not capable of measuring the extent to
which e-mail communication is truly interactive.

* Impact
For various reasons related to the context and terms of reference of the assignment,
this study fell short of assessing the real impact of the existing and active networks
and CoPs. Many of the networks are still relatively new and therefore, their impact is
still difficult to measure. We have also noted that these groups have yet to debate this
key issue internally.



                                           3
* Structure
The surveyed networks/CoPs had very different structures. Some had an elaborate
form linked to a sophisticated NGO structure whilst others were more informal
though affiliated to an NGO or a foreign organisation. Information about the role that
“moderators”, “facilitators”, or “coordinators” play in such networks where not
available. This is an area, which needs to be explored at a later stage.

Summary of conclusions
   The results of the survey indicated that this particular type of networking for
    learning and knowledge is still relatively new in the region. The distinction
    between regional networks and CoPs is still unclear with the vast majority
    surveyed.
   Several of the respondents have become familiar with CoPs as part of their
    interaction with this study. It has become clear that prior to this study, most
    respondents had a very limited knowledge of the concept.
   Some professionals unions and NGOs have been involved in various forms of
    regional linking and networking for many years before.
   International and foreign organisations, local/regional NGOs and/or research
    centers have played a leading catalyst role. Generally, the large majority of
    surveyed groupings can hardly be considered as full-fledged CoPs although
    they may potentially develop to become as such.
   A large part of these regional networks still partly or largely interact within the
    confines of irregular and distant conventional communication fora such as
    meetings, conferences, workshops, etc… Others have jumped into the virtual
    networking bandwagon
   One key question for MENA CoPs is whether virtual networking communities
    constitute a feasible and effective alternative for its members. Related to the
    latter point is to what extent can face to face bilateral and group interactions
    strengthen these communities and how to bring this about?
   The level of interaction within CoPs is unclear but seems to be still low. It is
    worth considering whether or not jump into regional networking has not been
    too hasty and whether or not the additional experience resulting from the
    development of country focused CoPs can consolidate regional CoPs.
   Most of the reviewed CoPs/network seem to be output-oriented whether in the
    form of developing practices or changing policies. Concerns were expressed
    towards the policy bias of most CoPs and whether they could be effective. One
    specialist has suggested that this is so because in MENA respect is granted to
    institutions and not to small groups of professional people and activists loosely
    working together1.
   Overall, it seems that in view of high costs, new and more cost effective
    alternatives for information and knowledge exchange need to be found. The
    development of CoPs at the regional level will continue for some time to be
    constrained by the availability of and access to information technology and
    related infrastructure.
   Other expected constraints relate to overcoming present management and
    organisational rigidities, bureaucracies and hierarchies.


1
    Phone conversation carried out with Omar Bizri from ESCWA


                                                 4
A better assessment and understanding of MENA CoPs may need to take into account
the following points:
     The possibility for CoPs to include in their membership a mix of individuals,
        NGOs, professionals and civil servants
     The need to distinguish between CoPs and networks or umbrellas of NGOs
     The ability of CoP structures to develop new ways of working which are not
        hierarchical or manager led
     Identifying CoP structures, which do not necessarily extend all throughout the
        region but may be focused on 2 or 3 countries (such structures were not
        covered by this review).
     Expanding the geographical scope beyond the MENA region so as to include
        groupings, which for instance will cover MENA and West Africa or Gulf
        countries with Central Asia or even Europe and the Mediterranean region.
     Identifying the agenda of the CoPs and whether it relates to global or region
        specific interests and priorities.
     Level of interaction amongst members.
     Breakdown of the various types of membership.




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                                1.     Introduction

The Mediterranean Development Forum (MDF) is a partnership of leading think tanks
from the Middle East and North Africa region, the World Bank Institute and the
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The partnership is dedicated to
providing policy support to development actors, promoting research and capacity
building of think tanks and creating networks in the MENA region.
Recently, there have been some discussions amongst partners around the role of
Communities of Practice (CoPs) and their potential impact on policy formulation in
the region and invigorating the MDF initiative. In order to review and explore
existing or potential CoPs in MENA, the World Bank and UNDP have agreed to
support a preliminary desk research in the region.

                              2.     The Assignment

The key purpose of this assignment as described in its terms of reference is to take
stock of existing regional networks and communities of practice and provide an
overview of the extent of their depth and spread.

Another broad aim of the review is to analyse the experience of establishing and
nurturing CoPs and networks in the region and identify their main challenges.

The review also attempts to clarify the difference between CoPs and networks and
outline the profile and experience of CoPs.

The desk review methodology has focused on the following:
     A review of literature on CoPs
     Research on the web to identify potential existing CoPs
     Phone interviews of selected institutions with known experience in facilitating
       CoPs
     Circulation of a questionnaire to around 130 networks and potential CoPs in
       the MENA region
     Data analysis and development of a summary matrix

In carrying out this task, a number of constraints and difficulties were encountered.
These are described in two annexes dealing in details with the ToRs and methodology
of the review. Nonetheless, this report should pave the way for further in-depth
studies and research on Communities of Practice and informal networks of
practitioners or professionals as a phenomenon that remains hardly explored in the
Arab region.

                3.      CoP: background, definition & challenges

Interest in Communities of Practice has developed during the past ten years. CoPs
have become the focus of growing attention, and the subject of numerous articles and
studies. CoPs have rapidly become a key subject of debate within a widening circle of
Northern American and European scholars, researchers, and corporate managers
concerned with and involved in promoting knowledge management, learning and
strengthening institutions.


                                         6
Broadly speaking, CoPs can be described as informal networks of professionals – that
emerge of their own accord to exchange knowledge and best practices. CoPs are
currently considered as one of the main cornerstones for successful corporate
strategies aiming at surviving in what is often described as the new knowledge era.
Pioneering and major corporations such as IBM and Xerox have fostered these new
bodies of professionals. Because of their relevance to learning and global networking,
interest in CoPs has also shifted to a number of international development
organisations such as the World Bank and UNDP.

Before moving to the main subject of this assignment, namely the review of CoPs in
the MENA region, this section will start by defining CoPs, their main concepts, and
the current global context and challenges that CoPs pose to corporations and
developmental organisations.


3.1     CoP background and definition

Although a Community of Practice is still relatively new as a concept, there is
consensus in the literature that modern CoPs have spontaneously emerged and
developed within the context of the North American/Western corporate world.

The first location for emerging CoPs seems to have been in the early nineties within
technical and large corporations.
One document described how a community of circuit designers in Silicon Valley
meets for a lively debate about the merits of two different designs developed by one
of its members2. The same document refers to a number of CoPs being launched in
the research division of the Schlumberger Company3. A second document points out
to the study which followed up the experience of the Xerox repair representatives who
set up an informal network of related social grouping to exchange tips on repairing
Xerox‟s customers machines4.

Because of the proven merits of CoPs as social conductors of knowledge and their
potentials for learning, they seem to have transcended national and transnational
corporate boundaries by mutating into a fast growing groupings of country, regional
and global communities.

In conclusion, it is widely accepted that diverse forms of CoPs have existed since the
beginning of history. Tribes are indeed an early example. What has changed is the
new context. With the dawn of the new information technology era around a quarter
of a century ago, corporate interest in these social phenomena has accelerated in order
to manage and tap the human capital of knowledge.




2
  HBSWK, Seven principles for cultivating CoPs, March 25, 2002
3
  Ibid
4
  John Sharp, CoPs: A review of the literature, March 12, 1997


                                               7
3.2       Key common attributes of CoPs

CoPs vary in form and thematic focus but they all revolve around learning and
exchange of knowledge-based activities.
Because of their potential for generating new ideas and synthesizing knowledge, CoPs
have succeeded in attracting the interest of managers concerned with capitalizing on
the actions of CoPs to improve corporate or organisational performance, and
effectiveness. What are then the special and distinctive attributes of CoPs in relation
to other social links and networks?

The study reviewed six definitions of CoPs. All six definitions present several
common characteristics.      The three principles commonalities, which can be
considered as the main features of full-fledged CoPs, are the following:

         Informal groupings of professionals
         Main focus on learning and exchange of knowledge – a common sense of
          purpose and a real need to know what each other knows
         Emerge of their own accord, independent of original structures and highly
          non-hierarchical.

There are several other attributes which can be drawn from the reviewed documents
and which relate to specific contexts or reflect divergent interpretation of CoPs. Such
factors include:

         Membership of CoPs may vary in number from tens, to hundreds and some
          even mentioned thousands
         CoPs are generally able to collect, codify and archive the knowledge of the
          community to be available for future reference.
         Generally, there is a consensus that the main focus or the purpose of CoPs is
          learning and exchange of knowledge but the final outcome or output of CoPs
          may be diverse or simply not clearly determined
         Some CoPs flourish within one organisation, others across organisations and
          even across geographical boundaries
         Some CoPs are largely virtual while others might be highly unstructured
          involving informal but regular direct contacts within the context of an
          organisation or across-organisational boundaries
         One definition has stressed the socialization dimension of CoPs while others
          have emphasized their end products
         Other non-tangible features mentioned in the six selected definitions involve
          adjectives such as “passionate”, “energizing” and “creative”

In summary, a community of practice is a virtual forum where practitioners “meet”
and exchange knowledge distilled from their practical and professional experience. A
CoP cannot exist if its members do not perceive any positive gain from their
affiliation. CoPs are diverse in type with wide ranging areas of focus. To study the
CoPs and networks in the region, the study examined the following key elements:

         Profile and size of members
         Thematic focus



                                            8
         Geographical location and spread
         Purpose (drive strategy, generating new lines of business, problem solving,
          promoting the spread of best practices, developing people‟s professional skills,
          helping companies recruit and developing talents, etc…)
         Type and frequency of regular activities
         Level and nature of the structure

We formulated questionnaires and conducted interviews with 140 individuals and
organizations involved in development in the MENA region. 34 CoPs/networks
responded in detail to a questionnaire. The report analyses and comments on their
responses and uses these in the subsequent conclusions and recommendations of the
study.


3.3       Exploring the CoP nebula

The literature refers to many similar terms in describing different forms of social
organization. Among these terms we note: informal network, community network or
network community, mailing lists, Schelling points, communities of discourse and
virtual communities.
In this sub-section, we will attempt to clarify the usage of these terms, their respective
context as well as their relation with communities of practice (CoPs). In doing so, we
hope to bring some further insights on CoPs and how they operate as well as touch on
some of the current discussions surrounding these new learning social engines in a
largely on-line world.

3.3.1 Informal networks and CoPs
According to John Sharp‟s review of literature, CoPs are special types of informal
networks that have a stricter purpose than informal networks since they are groups of
people whose main focus is the exchange of information, knowledge and practice in
order to work more effectively or to understand work more deeply. The three key
differences between both are the following:
           - CoPs are groupings of people rather than organisations
           - COP members share learning and extensive communication over a
               period of time
           - CoPs have fluid and by and large non-hierarchical structures.

An article published in the Harvard Business review provides a snapshot comparison
between informal networks and CoPs5. The article indicates that the purpose of CoPs
is to develop members‟ capabilities, build and exchange knowledge. Members select
themselves and are brought together by passion, commitment and identification with
the group‟s expertise. CoPs will last as long as there is interest in maintaining them.
Members of informal networks on the other hand are friends, colleagues and
acquaintances that get together to collect and pass on information and experience.
They are also held together by mutual needs and will continue to exist as long they
have reasons to connect.


5
 E Wenger & W Snyder, CoPs: The organisational frontier, Harvard Business Review, January-
February 2000


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3.3.2 Community network and network of communities
In one of his published articles, Philip Agre from the Department of Information
Studies at UCLA, attempted to clarify the differences and interconnections between
the two concepts6. For Agre, network and community seem complementary but each
is capable of containing the other. As such, “community points out to an ideal of
overcoming social distances while network suggests the instrument for doing so”.
Agre goes on to argue that the old views and discourse of sociologists and
anthropologists has become inadequate and can no longer explain how, in the
contemporary world, communities and networks are formed. For example, whereas
in the past communities were bound by a definite location in a geographic space, this
is no longer so with virtual and cybernetic communities. For their part, networks can
be considered as both technical and social. This renders the attempt of generalizing
the two concepts more complex. Agre concludes by questioning for instance, whether
people are supposed to be defined through the concept of communities that have
boundaries, meanings and that correlate with languages and identities. He adds that
communities have always been more complicated and that these complexities are
better amplified by networks.

3.3.3 Mailing lists and Schelling points
A major characteristic of modern CoPs has been in their evolution in an IT-enabled
on-line world. The nature of CoPs is transformed when they transcend corporate and
geographical boundaries. On-line communication gradually replaces physical
interaction, which used to take place among CoP members in the corridors or inside a
café. The communication dimension is of particularly high relevance for in-country,
regional and global CoPs.

In The Strategy of Conflict (1960), Schelling developed the idea of natural and
constructed points that “focus interactions, places that facilitate connections with
people interested in participating in a common line of action”. Accordingly,
electronic mailing lists or listservs and electronic discussion groups can be considered
as dynamic “Schelling” points.
However, Weinreich in a study published in 1997, argued that computer mediated
communication while supporting communications cannot build a community. “Trust,
cooperation, friendship and community are based on contacts in the sensual world.
You communicate through networks but you don’t live in them7”. He goes on to add
that people communicating by BBS, mailing lists and email will then seek to meet
face to face8.

3.3.4 Community of discourse & virtual community
Members of a discourse community are those who participate in a genre: they have
shared goals, they communicate (mainly through email but also conferencing, etc)
with one another, and they use various participatory mechanisms to provide
information and feedback. This is a weaker community to some extent and a
mechanism for supporting exchange and conversation.
For their part, virtual communities are a higher stage of an on-line community. They
produce a variety of collective goods. They allow people of similar interests but
separated by potentially great distance to come together with little cost, help them to
6
  P Agre, Rethinking networks and communities in a wired society
7
  Frank Weinreich, Global Hearth Fires, CMC Magazine, February 1997
8
  J Sharp, CoP: A review of the literature


                                              10
exchange ideas and coordinate activities and provide the kind of identification and
feeling of membership found in face-to-face interaction. Virtual communities are
more pro-active and dynamic than community of discourse. Although virtual
communities have several attributes of CoPs, they are not to be totally confused with
them (refer again to Sharp„s paper CoP: A review of literature on www.tfriend.com).


3.4        Challenges confronting CoPs and host organisations

The “New Knowledge Era” based on an extremely rapid flow of information
facilitated by equally fast developing communication technology present companies
and organisations in general with several challenges and dilemmas.
IBM has identified the following four main challenges to successfully manage and
exploit human capital through the conventional structures and processes:
     There is not enough resources to structure and update the content of the
         present repositories
     There are no mechanisms for checking and validating available information
     The information or material is not always or sufficiently relevant
     For various reasons individuals are reluctant to contribute to the database or
         repositories9

It is for these reasons that CoPs have become attractive since they are people centred,
focused on practices and are largely free and lightly structured bodies requiring little
investments in resources. However, fostering and supporting CoPs within an
organisation result in a number of management dilemmas.
Chief among these dilemmas is the fact that CoPs cannot be tightly managed. On the
contrary, their fostering and nurturing requires a large degree of delegation.
CoPs are very fine bodies that can be easily destroyed even through excessive support
and funding.

One of the main challenges is building a high degree of trust and fully engaging
members of the community in a sustainable manner. Many CoPs in the MENA
region suffer from weak sense of ownership and participation, unclear mandate and
purpose and “email fatigue”. Sustaining vibrant and effective networks requires effort
and time on behalf of the facilitator to provide guidance and the members to provide
input.

Another challenge is the absence in many of the networks of systematic methods to
capture and codify the knowledge and experience generated in the network. Many of
the regional networks that were reviewed in this study did not give sufficient
attention, if any, to capturing the experiences and knowledge of the members and
storing it in ways to allow it to be easily available for future reference, such as good
practice notes, or short practice papers.




9
    E Lesser & K Everest, CoPs Making the most of intellectual capital (www-l.ibm.com)


                                                  11
                     4.      Communities of Practice in MENA

4.1    Key findings of the review

The purpose of this section is to outline the findings of the review in terms of
identifying networks and CoPs that are active in the MENA region.
A total of 140 individuals and organisations were contacted between March and May
2002 with the aim of soliciting their assistance in proposing CoPs to be included in
the review. A preliminary questionnaire was forwarded to those who were thought to
fit CoP criteria. Information collected from respondents (21) was transferred to a
matrix developed for the purpose of the review. Two global learning/information
networks as well as 19 other MENA CoPs were added to the list. The latter were
either not previously known to us or had not responded to the first round of
questionnaires. The existence of these CoPs became subsequently known after going
through the list of MDF CoP proposals. This brought the total of identified CoPs &
potential regional networks to 40 groupings (including 2 structures from outside the
region and 19 MDF applications). In June 2004 the information concerning these
CoPs was updated. Out of the 40 groupings, 34 managed to reply to supply us with
updated information. The Updated matrix now includes 34 potential regional
Networks.

Following is a quick overview of MENA CoPs which focuses on seven key aspects,
namely: age of the network/CoP, identity and affiliation, host country, geographic
coverage, membership, thematic areas and activities and finally, the intensity/
frequency of interaction.

4.1.1 Age, identity & affiliation

Most of the surveyed CoPs appear to be very young structures. Indeed, of those who
mentioned their inception year, many appear to have developed as of 2000 with very
few before that date. Furthermore, among the 19 applicants to the MDF grant, most
can be described as “would-be-CoPs” as they had not formed yet but planned to do so
in case they are awarded the MDF grant. This finding comes to confirm the relatively
nascent nature of CoPs in the MENA region among development actors and hence the
difficulty of assessing their real impact at this point in time.

Nevertheless, this provides an opportunity to identify potential self as well as external
monitoring mechanisms and methodology for assessing and evaluating their progress
and impact.
International organisations and foreign aid agencies have played an important role in
fostering and coaching regional networks and CoPs. Amongst the chief advocates or
initiators of regional networking on information were the World Bank, UN bodies and
agencies, including UNDP and the European Union. The list of foreign aid agencies
included Friederich Naumann, National Democratic Institute, IDRC, etc..
However and rather surprisingly, it was noted that the majority of CoPs were not
directly affiliated to these external bodies. On the contrary, (20) out of the (34)
identified groupings claimed close established links with independent organisations
while three others considered themselves as fully independent CoP.



                                           12
Two of the listed information networks (Global Democracy Network and Global
Development Briefing) are global networks that however, maintain significant activity
in MENA.

4.1.2 Host country

Jordan seems to have attracted and presently hosts the largest number of regional
networks (11) followed by Lebanon (8) and Egypt (5). These three countries account
for 71% of the identified regional networks. The remaining number is distributed
amongst Palestine, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.

There could be several reasons for this. It could be that the background research
focused on these countries by virtue of our presence in Beirut and stronger contacts
with the Near East. It could also be that these countries have a more active and vocal
civil society that is quicker to adopt these forms of working. The absence of a
country like Morocco and the Maghreb however could be related to the fact that most
of the internet searching was conducted in English.

Nonetheless, if the survey is reflective of the situation on the ground, it shows that
Communities of Practice have taken stronger roots in the Levant than in the Gulf and
North Africa.

4.1.3 Country coverage

The range of MENA countries covered by the listed regional networks varies between
five to sixteen counties. The most active countries in networking are Jordan,
Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, followed by Morocco and Tunisia and thereafter
Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Algeria together with the six Arab Gulf countries.
It was not possible from the list of 19 MDF CoP to draw an exact idea of the proposed
country area of coverage of the networks. However, the individual nationality of their
core members confirms those finding obtained from CoP/networks that have replied
to the review questionnaire.

4.1.4 Membership

Once more, most of the MDF applications did not include information on membership
whether active or passive. Data submitted by the initial pool of CoPs/networks reveals
an even distribution between the four considered membership ranges (<25, 25>100,
100>200 & 200>). Most of the respondents did not distinguish between the various
levels of participation/involvement when putting forward their figures

4.1.5 Thematic area & types of activities

Thematic areas of involvement:
Many of the CoPs have more than one central theme. Gender, governance and
sustainable development appear to be the three main broad categories of the principle
foci of the reviewed CoPs. Information and communication technology also figure
high on the list. Furthermore, children rights, water management and media have also
attracted the attention of practitioners and professionals.



                                         13
Strategies and activities:
The overwhelming majority of MENA CoPs seem to pursue a combined policy and
practice approach. Of the 21 original CoPs, only one indicated that it was exclusively
policy oriented and three focus on exchange of practice.
Strategies included dissemination of learning, research, provision of training,
lobbying and creation of platforms. In terms of tools and activities, it was possible to
distinguish the following: website chatting, electronic mailing, conferences (both
direct and video) and workshops, regular polls, petitions and publications.

4.1.6 Intensity of interaction

Some of the information provided in the questionnaire in terms of intensity and
frequency of exchanges and interactions appears to be inaccurate. It was not possible
to breakdown the size of email exchanges by source and geographical spread so as to
build up some idea about the profile and effectiveness of the networks.
One other distorting fact is that respondents did not distinguish between
administrative/management and knowledge/practice focused exchanges.
Surprisingly, six regional networks stated that they were not involved in any
substantial email exchanges. Seven others did not respond to this question.
Yet and in relation to this subject, twelve networks considered their activity to be
reactive and interactive without providing any further insight as to what interactive
means or how this could be measured.

However, from discussions with some CoP members in the region, it is evident that
email is still not completely integrated into their work patters. Some expressed
misgivings about sending email messages to a group of people not all of whom one is
acquainted with. This raises once again the importance of building trust within a
community and ensuring that all members feel confident and comfortable
contributing.

It must be noted that information sharing for the purpose of learning and knowledge
exchange is not necessarily an inherent trait, particularly across organizations
(sometimes competing) and even across geographic boundaries. It has to be acquired
and incentives have to exist to encourage the sharing of information and knowledge.

4.1.7 Strengths and weaknesses

Given that CoPs are a relatively new phenomenon in the region, their work and
impact have not yet been properly assessed to understand their strengths and
weaknesses. Replies from respondents indicate that impact is not yet a priority issue.
As such, six of the surveyed networks did not respond to the question concerning
strengths and weaknesses. The answers provided by those who did respond to this set
of these questions were generally vague and brief.

Two respondents indicated that their strength lay in the fact that they were a global
network and had an outreach approach. One other respondent clarified that its
strength is based on the support it received from a UN agency whilst three other
respondents said that their strong point was in relation to their ways of working, their
structures, core partnerships and creative approach. Another respondent indicated that
its main strength came from being decentralized and having a flexible structure.


                                          14
As to their weaknesses, most respondents referred to their limited material capacity
and resources but without any further details. One respondent noted the narrow
membership base stressing the need to broaden the network‟s membership base. Three
other respondents indicated that their main weakness relates to the fact that they did
not enjoy a well-developed structure.
Other respondents pointed out to the limited usage of e-mail and Internet browsing in
the Arab world as well as the generally limited communication infrastructure. Two
respondents gave deeper insight as to challenges they face. One respondent
recognized the need to be more focused in its work while another respondent
acknowledged a key weakness in not being capable to monitor its activities.

4.1.8 Support base & structure

The first category of analysis used in this section addressed the issue of affiliation. It
is also possible to regroup the surveyed CoPs under additional headings namely
formal affiliates of an external organisation, groups hosted by another foreign or local
organisation and finally local NGOs.
One can argue that affiliated networks are somewhat in a privileged situation because
they may benefit from the multiform support of the head organisations irrespective of
whether they are based within or outside MENA. Similarly, one can expect groups
linked to local NGOs to fall back when needing support on the mother organisation.
The three organisations, which claimed to be independent, were in fact hosted by a
local organisation (University of Balamand) in one case and by two externally linked
organisations (AUB and World Bank) in another.

Neither the preliminary questionnaire nor the respondents‟ gave due attention to the
structure and mode of operation of the surveyed groups.
However, one can note that some of these networks are well-structured groups that are
run by an executive or steering committee. In some cases these groups have general
assemblies or advisory boards formed of key stakeholders.
Still, Nine respondents said that they had very flexible structures while six others
indicated that their structure were rather elaborate.


4.2    Reflections on MENA CoP and networks

Voluntary exchange of knowledge among professionals and practitioners is by
definition what CoPs are about.
The previous section examined, through a review of literature, how learning takes
place in the corporate circles of high technological advanced societies.
The report will now briefly move to some of the main characteristics of learning and
knowledge exchange in the region. In doing so, we will mainly draw on the work of
Amani Kandil and Shahida El-Baz, two leading specialists on Arab NGOs as well as
the consultant‟s personal experience in working with various types of NGOs,
associations and networks in Lebanon and other MENA countries.




                                           15
4.2.1 Context of intra-regional learning

        Large industrial and business enterprises, which were the breeding ground for
         the emergence of CoPs in North America and Europe, are in most Arab
         countries either public or family owned.
        Generally the overall management context within these large MENA
         institutions is not necessarily conducive to learning exchange or the free-flow
         of knowledge and ideas amongst field staff and professionals.
        Smaller and pioneering companies at the cutting edge of technologies in the
         region are too small in size to allow for internal and independent informal
         linking and exchanges of knowledge.
        With some notable exceptions such as Lebanon and the rich Gulf countries,
         electronic mail exchanges and linkages within individual MENA countries
         and across the region remain relatively limited and highly concentrated in
         some particular sectors such as major public institutions, key financial and
         productive sectors as well as the media. This tends to be concentrated in the
         upper echelons of the company‟s hierarchy and mainly at the senior
         management level. In most companies in the region, for example, staff may
         not have their own personal email, and even when they do, all correspondence
         may pass through management. These procedures severely limit and inhibit
         CoP activities.
        Finally, verbal communication remains the main form of communication and
         even when email connections exist, people are generally more comfortable
         and accustomed to direct contact or phone communication.

In attempting to explore the adaptability of this concept within the MENA region, we
will be reviewing three key issues: The types of regional professional NGOs,
circumstances and processes of learning in NGO structures mainly professional
organizations; and the type of existing regional networks.

4.2.2 The NGO’s learning context

Several studies on NGOs10 in the region have indicated that the exchange of
knowledge and learning plays a limited role in the current strategies pursued by
NGOs. In this area, NGOs are generally confronted with two main challenges. The
first is linked to weak institutional traditions and processes in terms of transparency
and the second, relates to a persisting feeling of insecurity. In general, NGOs are
hesitant and not entirely open in their attitude vis-à-vis the public, other NGOs and
government authorities. Furthermore, they have a poor record of joint cooperation,
weak negotiation skills and inability to compromise.
These weak learning and exchange traditions reflect in poor communication practices,
and are a major obstacle to the emergence and flourishing of CoPs which by their
very nature require transparency, trust and openness. Investments in communication,
in terms of specialised and professional hardware, but much more importantly in
developing human skills, is relatively limited and is not generally seen as a high
priority. A key exception is when such an investment is considered as essential for
developing relations with external donors or their support base.

10
 Shahida Al-Baz, Arab civil societies organisations at the turn of the twentieth century
Amani Kandil, contribution to Civicus International Report, not dated


                                                  16
4.2.3 Formal professional Arab regional networks

Historically, professional Arab regional organizations were the first to engage in
regional networking11. Most of the current regional professional NGOs have as a
prime objective to work towards safeguarding and promoting the special interests of
their professional constituency (doctors, lawyers, accountants, social workers, etc)
vis-à-vis public authorities or other social and economic actors.

Generally, these professional associations have in their record books a significant
number of members. They maintain close links with the authorities or ruling political
parties.

The majorities of regional corporate networks were founded under the umbrella of the
Arab League and therefore, largely reflect the views and interests of the governments
of member states. The syndicates of artists, physicians, writers, as well as the press
syndicate and the bar associations present cases in point for earlier networks which
were created within this framework as early as the fifties12

Here again, learning and exchange of knowledge are low priorities. At best, they may
be carried out within the confines of specialised conferences that some of these
professional bodies occasionally organise.

4.2.4 Other regional networks13

Professional Arab regional networks, also widely referred to as unions, have existed
for many decades. However and since the start of the nineties, the region witnessed
the emergence of a growing number of other NGO networks. Networking amongst
NGOs is taking place not only at the regional levels but has been preceded by
networking efforts within a number of Arab countries.

Networking in the region takes different forms and is around a variety of theme. The
latter principally include environment, women, disability, health, and sustainable
development. Networking in the region shows the following characteristics:

        Generally, networks in the region tend to be NGO networks from a relatively
         close circle irrespective of the size of their membership. Membership is
         governed by conditions and requirements, which has the effect of filtering
         accessibility to the network‟s core activities.
        Several networks were created as a result of or in interaction with foreign or
         international funding organisations that ensure their continuity.
        Their activities are mainly focused on organizing regional conferences,
         training events, participation in international seminars and conferences,
         production of publications, release of statements and communiqués etc.



11
   Saaed Eddine Ibrahim, Role of NGOs in the development of civil society: Europe and Arab
Countries, Bruno Kreisky Forum & Arab Thought Forum, 1999
12
   c.f UNDP Arab Human Development Report 2002 pp 125
13
   Amani Kandil, Idem


                                                17
   Generally, these regional networks are characterized by high concentration of
    power and resources within a small number of senior NGO members and a
    handful of staff. They are often highly structured and hierarchical.
   These networks are generally geared towards lobbying work in an attempt to
    influence policies.
   Learning and knowledge exchanges only play a minor role.
   Communication and exchange between members of the NGOs can also be
    problematic, sometime because of technical difficulties and normally because
    of limited financial resources.
   Geographically, one can note a tendency for organisations to carry out parallel
    networking along sub-regional lines (ME, Maghreb, the Gulf). Links between
    the Gulf and both the Maghreb and the Middle East are relatively weak
    reflecting the different dynamic nature of civil societies in each of three sub-
    regions.




                                      18
                    5.      Conclusions on MENA CoP Review

5.1    On the findings of the surveyed CoPs

* Central theme
The central themes for networks/CoPs include women and gender equality, human
rights and democracy, and sustainable development. It is obvious that these themes
are fully in harmony with the priorities of a larger segment of the NGO sector in the
region and within the international aid community. Interest in networking for
exchange of knowledge around other themes is minor and has mainly originated from
professionals involved in fields of work such as water management, information
technology, business promotion, the media, etc.

A careful examination of the MDF proposals reveals a close correlation between the
establishment of the surveyed CoPs and the regional activities that the UNDP, World
Bank, the European Union have undertaken in the past to encourage and strengthen
the setting up of think tanks and the exchange of experiences. In most applications,
the creation of the CoP or the new regional network is described as linked to regional
conferences and workshops sponsored and supported by international organisations.

* Affiliation
Several of the reviewed networks/CoPs consider themselves as affiliated to foreign
organizations. Some others see themselves as independent NGOs and/or newly
established CoPs. However, most surveyed networks received some level of external
support from international or local organisations, which has allowed them to operate.

* Country base
It appears that Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are the three most popular host country for
regional networks/CoPs. Other host countries of the ME region, are Palestine, Saudi
Arabia, and Tunisia. It may be worth exploring the reasons why some countries are
more active than others.

* Membership and profile
Membership varies from a small number (less than 25) to several hundreds. The fact
some of the networks are recent may partly explain their low membership. It appears
that the more established networks/CoPs, enjoying stronger external links have in fact
a wider membership base. The discussion around membership leads us to raise the
need for a clearer definition of the term “member” against the background of the
various issues raised in section 3.2. For instance, there seems to be no distinction
between a core member and a passive member.
However, one interesting finding of the survey relates to the mixed background of
members. Several regional networks/CoPs seem to include members of very diverse
background namely civil servants/government officials, professionals, researchers,
NGO activists and staff.
This is a rather positive sign. It provides a good opportunity for nurturing a common
space for constructive dialogue, interaction and interactive learning amongst different
groups and stakeholders. It is also worth exploring whether groups with a
heterogeneous mix of members are more or less active than homogenous groups.



                                          19
* Strategies and Activities
Surveyed networks described themselves as both reactive and interactive.
Furthermore, most CoPs consider themselves to be involved in both policy and
practice. When reviewing their strategies of interventions and activities, it was
evident that networking for the purpose of learning takes on very different forms in
the region. However, these activities are mainly conventional, combining meetings,
conferences and the exchange of information through publications and newsletters.
Chatting and conferencing through website remain limited. The review was not
capable of measuring the extent to which e-mail communication is truly interactive.
Sustaining conventional means of learning and networking (meetings, conferences,
etc…) is an expensive option that may invariably result in financial difficulties. The
extent to which these events are interactive is not clear at this point in time.
However, information gathered from the review supported previous findings that very
interesting networking often occurs informally on the side of regional meetings and
conferences.

* Depth
There are very few groups that possess all the elements of a community of practice as
it is defined above. Most networks have not yet developed ways of codifying and
archiving the knowledge that is shared. Still others are highly structured and do not
seem to allow for the free exchange of information.

* Impact
The assessment of impact of CoPs is beyond the scope of the context and terms of
reference of this assignment. One should also remember that these networks and
formations are still relatively new and therefore, their impact is still difficult to
measure. We have also noted that these groups have yet to debate this key issue
internally. Once criteria for evaluation are agreed, these organisations may
subsequently need to build a solid database that would allow such an assessment to
take place.

Most CoPs indicated that they are involved in policy formulation/policy making, yet
this was not substantiated with examples. In addition, the relatively short lifespan of
these CoPs so far, does not allow for tangible policy changes. Nevertheless, many of
these CoPs have started to clarify a specific focus on policy change. MACMAG
GLIP for instances has embarked on a programme on gender and citizenship aiming
in its initial phase, to contribute to a reform in current nationality laws. As such, it is
essential for existing CoPs as well as for CoP observers to devise accurate monitoring
mechanisms which are likely to document and analyse policy changes which can be
credited to these CoPs.

However, it has been noted that most responses received from existing CoPs focused
on external factors linked to material or human resources or internal organisational
issues. It is somewhat regretful that almost none of the responses concentrated on the
actual process and practice of networking and exchange of information and
knowledge and its implication on policy changes.

The three CoPs awarded grants by the WBI and UNDP should make an effort to note
lessons learned, good practices, and challenges in establishing and sustaining a



                                            20
regional CoP. Their experience, if properly gathered and analyzed could be very
useful to new groups embarking a similar exercise.

* Structure
The surveyed networks/CoPs had very different structures. Some had an elaborate
form linked to a sophisticated NGO structure whilst others were more informal
though affiliated to an NGO or a foreign organisation. Information about the role that
“moderators”, “facilitators”, or “coordinators” play in such networks where not
available. This is an area, which needs to be explored at a later stage.


5.2        Overall conclusions

          The results of the survey indicated that this particular type of networking for
           learning and knowledge is still relatively new in the region and not well
           understood. The distinction between regional networks and CoPs is still
           unclear.
          Several respondents have become familiar with CoPs as part of their
           interaction with this study. It has become clear that prior to this study, most
           respondents had a very limited knowledge of the concept.
          Some professionals unions and NGOs have been involved in various forms of
           regional linking and networking for many years before.
          International and foreign organisations, local/regional NGOs and/or research
           centers have played a leading catalyst role.
          Generally, the large majority of surveyed groupings can hardly be considered
           full-fledged CoPs although they may potentially develop to become as such.
          A large part of these regional networks still partly or largely interact within the
           confines of irregular and distant conventional communication fora such as
           meetings, conferences, workshops, etc… A minority have jumped into the
           virtual networking bandwagon
          One key question for MENA CoPs is whether virtual networking communities
           constitute a feasible and effective alternative for its members. Related to the
           latter point is to what extent face to face bilateral and group interactions can
           strengthen these communities and how to bring this about?
          The level of interaction within CoPs is unclear but seems to be still low. It is
           worth considering whether or not jump into regional networking has not been
           too hasty and whether or not the additional experience resulting from the
           development of country focused CoPs can consolidate regional CoPs.
          Most of the reviewed CoPs/network seem to be output-oriented whether in the
           form of developing practices or changing policies. Concerns were expressed
           towards the policy bias of most CoPs and whether they could be effective. One
           specialist has suggested that this is so because in MENA respect is granted to
           institutions and not to small groups of professional people and activists loosely
           working together14.
          Overall, it seems that in view of high costs, new and more cost effective
           alternatives for information and knowledge exchange need to be found. The
           development of CoPs at the regional level will continue for some time to be


14
     Phone conversation carried out with Omar Bizr from ESCWA


                                                21
          constrained by the availability of and access to information technology and
          related infrastructure.
         Other expected constraints relate to overcoming present management and
          organisational rigidities, bureaucracies and hierarchies.


                         6.     Recommendations on the way forward

This section will put forward a number of recommendations, which aim at advancing
the exploration of CoPs in the MENA region.

6.1       On furthering the understanding of MENA CoPs:

This exploratory study has pointed out the need for a qualitative and in-depth follow-
up study. It is suggested that such study thoroughly dissects a sample of the learning
networks by using more detailed categories of analysis. This sample of 9 selected
networks could look as follows (the reason for suggesting each structure is detailed
here below):

         Networks with international affiliation (3):
             - AMAN Jordan (Claims to have a large membership base and focuses
                on women and gender issues and operates in 12 countries in addition
                to others)
             - POPIN West Asia (Mixed government officials, practitioners,
                researchers and NGOs membership all working on population issues.
                Has 26 focal points)
             - Water Demand Management (the network is interesting as its
                specialization in water management is very much policy oriented)

         Networks linked to local NGOs and/or centres (2):
             - CARDNE (Has a mixed membership of consultants, researchers, and
                professionals from both government and non-government
                organisations. Also works in rural cooperation on agrarian reform
                and operates in 9 countries)

         Independent networks (3):
             - Jemstone (Claims to have 1000 members covering a non-conventional
                 theme, which is not directly related to development. It seems to have a
                 critical internal analysis)
             - MEVIC (Has amongst its members hundreds of progressive groups
                 including academics, professionals and students. Interested in
                 promoting mutual understanding of Palestinian issue. Active in
                 Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Gulf countries)
             - ITSIG (Claims around 2000 members including engineers, ICT and
                 management professionals from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Australia,
                 US, Canada and several gulf countries)




                                            22
         Global Networks (1):
             - Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (Covers important and
                 critical human rights issues and includes around 80 members
                 interested in human rights)


6.3       Other recommendations for fostering CoPs in MENA:

       The study clearly indicates that Cops are nascent phenomena in the Arab
        region. However, current and potential CoPs in the Arab region carry serious
        and concrete promises for bringing about positive changes at the level of
        exchange of learning as well as contribution to changing policies and
        practices. Proper coaching, facilitation and support of current and potential
        CoPs as well as the setting up of monitoring mechanisms will greatly enhance
        this process.

       Because CoPs are still recent groupings, it is recommended that MDF supports
        or organises a regional workshop on CoPs with the participation of the pool of
        respondents in this study and where a number of the issues identified in this
        study can be discussed. It is also recommended that CoPs from other regions
        and which are better established and more experienced be also invited to take
        part in this event so as to bring in their own experiences and good practices.
        The proposed regional workshop could discuss a number of central issues such
        as the importance and role of CoPs in the region, distinctions between
        networking and CoPs, strategies for attracting participants and members, roles
        of animator, moderator, etc. Other important areas should also include the
        impact of CoPs on the host organisations (NGOs, research centres,
        commercial companies, media circles, professional unions etc) as well as how
        to ensure the sustainability of the work of the nascent CoP community.

       In addition to the existing MDF fund available for regional CoPs, it is
        suggested that country focused funds are set up in a number of pilot countries
        of the region so as to support new country CoP initiatives. These new CoPs
        could later link up with similar regional and international groupings.
        Although it did not fall within the terms of the present review, it appears that
        there are not so many formal CoPs active in any one country of the region.
        Fostering the development of such country focused CoPs seems to be a logical
        step that could consolidate and strengthen the experience of regional CoPs.

       Include the information and data gathered in the course of this review on
        SURF-AS‟s website and organize a regular and systematic updating of this
        information roster. SURF-AS should take the lead of establishing at a later
        stage a virtual network of interested CoPs. Information on CoPs and good
        practice in the region and beyond should be disseminated in both Arabic and
        English so as to publicize and promote the works carried out by these groups.




                                            23
                 UNDP SURF-AS

Desk Research on Regional Communities of Practices




                     Annex




                        24
                                              Key findings of the review

Twenty-nine organisations and networks responded by filling the matrix
questionnaire in June 2004, 5 others last filled it in 2002.

         Base country

                                    Number of networks or CoPs

Jordan                              11

Lebanon                             8

Egypt                               5

Palestine                           3

Tunisia                             1

USA                                 2

Denmark                             1

Malta                               1

Saudi Arabia                         1

Switzerland                          1




                                        Number of Networks per Country
          Number of Networks




                               12
                               10
                                8
                                6
                                4
                                2
                                0
                                   Pa ypt




                                   D SA



                                  ud alta



                                             nd
                                   Le an




                                               a
                                      Tu e




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                                               n




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                                            ar
                                             si
                                            in
                                           no




                                 Sw rab

                                          la
                                          rd




                                          ni
                                        Eg




                                          U
                                         st




                                         m

                                Sa M
                                       ba




                                        er
                               Jo




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                                      en



                                     iA




                                                            25
Membership & countries covered

It is to be noted that the surveyed groups/organisations have different membership
size and composition.
Some networks have a combined NGO and practitioners constituency. Others have a
membership that includes members of government staff and NGOs activists or staff.
Membership in these networks means different things depending on the nature of the
organisation and type of activities. It can vary from passive beneficiary, member in
interactive virtual CoPs, to a core stakeholder in the grouping.

The profile of members is very diverse and ranges from government civil servants,
researchers, academicians, engineers, NGO staff, media people, lawyers, development
consultants, educationalists, business people and all types of practitioners and activists
(human and children rights, women & gender, environment, development), students
and professors.
Time constraint and the actual state of the organisations‟ database did not allow for
presenting more accurate information on membership distribution per category.
In terms of size we were able to identify the following ranges:

Range <25                     25 >100    100 >200         200>       NA

(11)                          (7)        (3)              (8)        (5)


                                    Number of networks per range

                         12
    Number of Networks




                         10
                          8
                          6
                          4
                          2
                          0
                                <25      25-100       100-200       200>     NA
                                               Range (number of members)


The number of countries covered by the surveyed structures ranges from five to
sixteen. Strong regional networking traditions can be noted in the following countries:
Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Palestine then followed by Morocco and Tunisia and then
Yemen, Sudan, Syria and Algeria as well as the six Arab Gulf countries.
Several networks also include other non-Arabic countries of the region such as Iran,
Israel and Turkey.



                                                     26
Types and characteristics of action

In this section we will be presenting more summary findings of the research as
reveled by the questionnaire of the respondents. We will cover four main areas: the
network main central theme, action focus, types of activities and their general
characteristics.

Main central theme and focus of surveyed networks

The main focus of the surveyed networks and organisations is listed below with the
number of organisations following these foci. It is to be noted that some of these
groups have more than one focus.

Women & gender (9)
   Women development, globalisation and gender rights (7)
   Violence against women (2)

Democracy & human rights (9)
   Human rights (4)
   Democracy and governance (4)
   Right to freedom of association (1)

Development & Environment (7)
    Social development (3)
    Environment (1)
    Agricultural and rural development (2)
    Population issues (1)
Media and Journalism (4)

Information and communication technology (4)

Palestine and peace in the Middle East (3)

Children‟s right (2)

Water management (1)



Types of activities and characteristics

These learning networks adopt various strategies and activities, which we will briefly
outline here. It is to be noted that the majority of respondents indicated that their
action involved both policy and practice as indicated by the following:

Strategy of action:    Policy (21)*            Practice (18)**      Research (3)

 * Four groups stated that their action was exclusively policy oriented
** One group indicated that it was exclusively practice focused



                                          27
In response to whether the network was reactive or interactive, most of those who
responded claimed that their network was both reactive and interactive. The following
was noted:
     Reactive: 16 replies of which 1 was exclusively reactive
     Interactive: 22 of which 7 were exclusively interactive

Strategy and types of activities (tools):

Strategies:
     Dissemination of learning
     Research
     Provision of training and capacity building opportunities
     Lobbying
     Developing platforms

Tools:
        Website chatting
        Petitions
        Regular polls
        Electronic emailing of information
        Publications
        Conferences, workshops & meeting (video & direct)




                                            28

				
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Lingjuan Ma Lingjuan Ma MS
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