Director of the Benin Environment and Education Society (BEES) shows plastic pollution in Benin

The value of your network – Who’s your “inside (wo)man”?

Header photo by: BEES

‘I’m not good at networking’ is a phrase we hear all too often. Talking to strangers about your latest plans can feel uncomfortable, but ‘networking’ is much, much more. Maximin Djondo even goes as far to say that networking is not only effective, but easy-going. In this article, he explains how a government official helped him establish an administrative alliance that’s built to last.

“For most civil society organisations (CSOs) in Benin, it’s not easy to influence government bodies without having what we call ‘our (wo)man inside’,” says Maximin Djondo, Director of the Benin Environment and Education Society (BEES). “People in government want to separate civil-society from law-making. But recently, things have started to change for us.”

The inside man

One of Maximin’s contacts, Mr. Raphael Edou, plays a vital role. Raphael has worked as a consultant for CSOs, including Maximin’s organisation BEES, for many years. For people working for nature conservation, he’s managed to obtain a key position.

Maximin: ‘We used to cooperate with Raphael in a coalition of CSOs to lobby for clean, sustainable wetlands. We’d consult him for expert views on solid waste management, so that we’d know what to discuss with the government during our lobby.’ And guess what? In 2013, Raphael was appointed Minister of Environment in Benin. This is when he became Maximin’s ‘man inside’.

Maximin: ‘Now we could directly call all Raphael’s staff members, like the person responsible for international agreements or the person working on climate change. We’d talk about what we need from them, and what they want from us as CSOs. Communicating directly helps a great deal in advancing our work. Now formal letters actually find their way to the person responsible, instead of being lost in a huge pile on the assistant’s desk.’

The importance of institutionalizing

Being in touch with the right people inside the government is one thing, but institutionalizing your connection is equally important.

Maximin: ‘Raphael left his position as Minister of Environment about two years later. Often, a collaboration then stops. But what we did is institutionalize it in a memorandum of understanding, which helps us to continue our work even if our man or woman inside leaves office. However, a little more action is desirable. Because a new minister can simply choose to ignore such a memorandum. That’s why you still need continuous, strong lobby and advocacy for your efforts to be successful.’

‘Over the last 20 years, the most important thing I’ve discovered is that only together we stand strong.’

The memorandum of understanding states that the CSOs and the government meet every six months to discuss the status of the environment. Here, the government informs the CSOs about their plans impacting the environment and the CSOs present the projects they’re implementing in the country.

Discussing plans impacting the environment

So what were the outcomes of Maximin’s efforts? Maximin: ‘We are truly happy about working together with the government. We meet every six months and I get invited to discuss new policies, for example on forestry. But even though we talk a lot, we as CSOs would like to implement more projects in the country.’

Luckily, whenever they do set up a project with local governments or communities, for example capacity building, Maximin can prove it’s supported by the central government. ‘I simply invite a Minister or Chief of Cabinet to have a talk at the beginning of the session, showing that the Ministry of Environment, Agriculture or Water, has our back. This legitimizes our actions.’

Lessons learned

‘Over the last 20 years, the most important thing I’ve discovered is that it is only together we stand strong,’ says Maximin. Maybe you’re a small CSO, or maybe you’ve only just started out. But your network is valuable anytime and through different ways. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s all intertwined. By working together with your contacts at the government, you have an impact on legislation.  

The lessons learned from this case summed up:

  • Your ‘man or woman inside’ helps you get in touch with the people responsible for the environment. Maybe your contact is the actual Minister of Environment or Agriculture, or maybe your contact can help you get a formal letter on his or her desk. Your network is always valuable.
  • Back up from the central government officials legitimizes the implementation of local projects and helps them succeed. It’s creates a domino effect.  
  • Make sure you institutionalize your collaboration, in for example a memorandum of understanding. In this way when your (wo)man inside leaves the government, you continue to work with his or her successor.

Thanks to their network, Maximin and his colleagues drafted a law on banning single use plastics. And it passed! Watch the video to find out how they managed to do this.

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Lessons on business engagement for nature conservation

This article is part of the series Lessons on business engagement for nature conservation.

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