This article has been published in Enabling Education 11
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Title: Swimming Upstream
Author: Stubbs, S and Miles, S
Publisher: EENET
Date: 2007

Swimming upstream

What are the criteria for developing and maintaining a ‘successful’ inclusive network? In this article Sue Stubbs and Susie Miles reflect on their experiences of inclusive networking in the International Disability and Development Consortium (IDDC) and in EENET.

Developing an inclusive way of working involves ‘swimming upstream’ or ‘going against the grain’ of current mainstream society. It is ‘normal’ to be exclusive, discriminatory and hierarchical. It is ‘normal’ to allow the most powerful voices to dominate. Inclusive networks and partnerships have to resist this normal pattern of human behaviour. They have to do this consciously and continuously – and it is hard work! They have to be conscious about values, principles and processes – and this requires ongoing vigilance and self-critical reflection.


What do we mean by ‘inclusive’? Inclusion relates to gender, culture, language, age, disability, accessibility, power. It involves ‘listening to less powerful voices’. Some people see ‘inclusion’ as simply inserting a marginalised group into the mainstream. But this approach does not really change society although it can benefit a few people. In a deeper sense, inclusion is a process of radically transforming existing society – and of celebrating diversity and combating discrimination in relation to all types of difference. To be inclusive is not easy and does not come naturally, and so it requires real attention and monitoring.


What do we mean by ‘development’? Some people see the ‘South’ as the problem – full of disease, poverty, and needing help. This perception is known as ‘negative deficit model’. Others see unjust trade laws, legacies of colonialism and the global imbalance of power as the problem. This is a ‘social model’ approach. The current global context is one of gross inequity, social injustice, widespread conflict, lack of sustainability, and environmental crisis. Networks and partnerships cannot solve these huge issues. But we can be conscious of them and engage with them.

Partnerships and networks

A partnership or network of individuals and organisations is different from a single organisation with one-person as a director. In a network, the views and convictions of any single individual person or organisation cannot so easily be imposed on others. Networking or partnership working requires a strong commitment and a skilful approach to: listening; learning from others; sharing ideas in respectful ways; focusing on the common goal; and tolerating differences.

General principles of an inclusive network

  • There is clarity and transparency over who the stakeholders are and their roles in the network/partnership.
  • There is clarity over the general goal, and the particular function and strategies of the network.
  • Resources are used efficiently (there is very minimal infrastructure and budget).
  • Time is spent on developing suitable processes, not just focusing on outputs.
  • The network grows or evolves slowly.
  • There is a balance between continuity and timely injections of new energy and ideas.
  • ‘Tensions’ are acknowledged and uncomfortable issues are engaged with, not avoided.

Learning from the South, and South-South sharing

It is easy to talk about learning from the experiences of practitioners and stakeholders in the South and about promoting sharing between people in countries of the South. However, there are many challenges in adopting this approach. For example:

  • Striking a balance between the use of the written word and communicating effectively with oral cultures is difficult.
  • Field-practitioners lack experience and skills in relation to analysing and presenting their own work.
  • Cross-cultural communication is not easy.
  • Northern perspectives still dominate in ‘international’ seminars and conferences.
  • There is still much ignorance and prejudice in relation to different cultures.

Evaluating networks

We have been inspired by the work of Madeline Church1 on the nature and evaluation of networks. She uses the image of knots and threads to illustrates the way networks work. Members are connected by threads of communication and relationship. These threads come together in knots of activity. The strength of the net lies in the work members do together and the trust that is built through their communication. The structure of a network is loose but connected – and horizontal, not hierarchical.

Madeline Church believes that networks can only be evaluated by those most involved in networks – since they are so complex. She suggests, and EENET agrees, that the following issues need to be considered when evaluating networks.


  • e.g. What are the differing levels or layers of participation across the network?


  • e.g. What is the level of trust between members, and between members and the secretariat?


  • e.g. Where is leadership located?

Structure and control

  • e.g. How is the structure felt and experienced? Too loose, too tight, facilitating, strangling?

Diversity and dynamism

  • e.g. How easy is it for members to contribute their ideas and follow through on them?


  • e.g. What are the power relationships within the network? How do the powerful and less powerful interrelate?

EENET would like to publish more articles about networking. We particularly want to hear about your experiences of running information or support networks that are initiated and run in the South, and built on principles of equality and inclusion.

Sue Stubbs is the Co-ordinator and one of several founding members of IDDC. IDDC began in 1993 as an informal group of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in disability and development. It is now registered as an international not-for-profit association in Belgium, and has 19 members based in 10 different European countries. Its aim is to promote inclusive development, share information and expertise, and to work collaboratively. Its members include disabled people’s organisations, general development organisations, disability NGOs and ‘platforms’ (agencies that do not have programmes but share information). Sue can be contacted at: See also IDDC’s website: (currently being reconstructed).

1Participation, Relationships and Dynamic Change: New Thinking on Evaluating the Work of International Networks by Madeline Church and colleagues can be downloaded from: If you cannot access the Internet, please contact EENET and we will help you to access the document.

Creating conversations: inclusive networking

Creating conversations: inclusive networking


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