Don’t freeze the discussion
By Mengistu Hailu
Dec. 20 2007
It has been already weeks since Atsbah Gebru of Awlaelo Alumni posted an article on creating an umbrella organization of Tigray’s Almuni Associations. I have also read a couple of papers from other people following suit in posting their opinions. Similarly I thought that it is high time to discuss the issue given the renewed interest of many Tigriyans to come together to deliberate on the development future of our region. Hence here are my thoughts. I will be dealing more on the concerns of merging the associations to umbrella org than the solutions of overcoming them. Primarily because I don’t have the solutions, but also because my intention is to continue and encourage the discussion already initiated by Atsbaha and co. But in the end I will try to outline my thoughts (talking points) on how we may proceed.
There seems to be little doubt about the importance of having a bigger and inclusive organization, and thus consensus of many can be assumed as real. But, I personally feel that, the process of how this inclusive organization should be brought into being needs some thinking and talking. Through that, the practical concerns of many of the existing associations and perhaps of individuals may be addressed. I guess we need to boldly start talking about the concerns of the associations so that they reach at some comfort level to talk about it. Creating a comfort zone for these associations should be a prime task.
From my perspective, some of the following, but not limited to, are concerns of the associations and individuals when thinking about having a bigger organization:
- These alumni associations have already defined their constituents and promised to deliver some kind of outcome; and some already are in the process of delivering that promise, while others are on the process. Hence talking about ‘merger’ into a bigger organization would obscure the methods of achieving the specifically established goals but also would ‘threaten’ the possibility of accomplishing the promises they made to their constituents. Some associations already have defined projects and they would think, ‘merger would jeopardize the implementation of these’. This includes practical issues of fund raising, since the associations rely on specific target of people to fund their projects. Hence it is natural if they feel threatened, when their sources join the big pot.
- Many alumni associations are already offering a limited but real kind of social service. They are platforms for people from the areas they represent (and others) to discuss social affairs, in addition to the development projects. Hence there is already a comfort zone created among individual members with in the associations, which many may not be willing to forgo. Call it creation of sub identity or fear of the unknown, there is some cuteness in these small associations many people seem to enjoy as compared to confronting the unknown big one.
- Many people did not yet recover from the shock of the failure of TDA. Many feel still that when organizations of such nature grew bigger, they happen to be inaccessible to their constituents, and hence unmanageable, and inefficient. A case in point is the TDA’s experience. TDA for what ever reasons didn’t live up to the expectations of many. Hence many people could be skeptical of the formation of hegemony.
- Others may even be buying the idea that TDA is already coming back, and no reason for having a second organization that would weaken TDA.
I am certain that these are a few from the long list of concerns people may have in creating an umbrella organization. And I hope other compatriots will air the others out in due course so that we discuss them openly.
To address the above concerns, we need to keep talking openly as long as it takes. Below is the outline of my thoughts: Why do we need to come together?
Like I mentioned above, many people are already tired of the scattered stance of TIGRIYANS on many issues and would like to see some mechanism in place that would bring them together. For some it is not even the fund raising or school projects that matters most. The fact that we come together and take pleasure in our unity and solidarity is a major reason by itself. Thus many agree that we desperately need to come together. BUT the question is HOW?
An organizational set up that would address the concerns, in one hand, and that serves our intention of unity on the other, is what we need to seek for. Here follows what I think:
To begin with, we should come to terms with the crucial understanding that we don’t necessarily need a unitary form of structure for our organization. That in many ways doesn’t seem feasible. All we need is a ‘loosely coupled’ organizational set up that networks the existing associations together. (I am borrowing the concept ‘loosely coupled’ from Karl Weick (1976), but I am not going to reference it to avoid academic jargon.). Weick uses this term to describe the organization of administrative units in universities. And I feel that, this kind of organization can be applied to the formation of the umbrella association we are aspiring. Loosely coupled, in our case, would mean that these associations will continue to exist as independent entities, but will be linked to create an identity that they identify with. The idea of loosely coupled “…carries connotations of impermanence, dissolvability, and tacitness all of which are potentially crucial properties of the “glue” that holds organizations together.”
By being loosely coupled, the associations can avoid the concerns stated above. The associations can have a network that is lead by a steering committee that represents members from volunteering associations. This steering committee will draft a Terms of Reference (TOR) for itself (or a for a newly to be elected one) and a draft memorandum of understanding that would be discussed by the associations and endorsed. This TOR has to clearly establish the impermanence of the network, the exist strategy from the network and the autonomy of the individual associations to operate as before regarding the drafting and implementation of their projects. All the network should do is capitalizing on the synergy effect that can emerge out of the coming together of the associations. It could oversee mega projects that may not be planned and executed by the capacity of the individual associations, and work to improve relations and cultivate solidarity among the associations. In specific terms, the network could:
- Serve as a means to bring Tigriyans together and consolidate their solidarity on many cultural, social, religious, economic and political issues
- Create an enabling environment where Tigray based mega projects can be deliberated, planned and executed. (for instance a mega project can be drafted that would not necessarily be a huge financial burden for Diaspora Tigriyans. The network can approach donors and get financial and technical support.
- Liaison and smoothen a link between the Diaspora Tigriyans and home: information service.
- Create favorable conditions of the home coming of Tigriyans back to Tigray, Ethiopia
This could curb the fear that associations could have about being swallowed by a hegemony of a big organization. The TOR should also outline mechanisms of expediting the existing projects of the associations - for instance a joint fund raising event to finish up existing projects. It also needs to map out a clearly decentralized network structure that enhances both unity and associational leverage at the same time.
Why worry for such a seemingly weak network?
Again borrowing Weick’s ideas, loosely coupled systems, though messy, have valid functions:
- Persisting through rapid environmental fluctuations
When problems surface, as already feared by many associations and individuals, the associations can protect it proactively by exercising their independent rights. This could include all sorts of consequences of hegemony of organizational task and structure: in-efficiency, corruption, remoteness from constituents etc. Besides, individual associations can act independently when situations deemed it necessary. For instance, they don’t have to wait for collective decisions on matters pertaining their own projects, or when the situation requires quick and immediate action. This capability would enhance their adaptability and persistence through environmental fluctuations.
- Allow sub-system breakdown without damaging the entire organization
When some associations appear to be weak in operation like, member mobilization, fund raising, and project implementation, or organizational harmony which would lead to organizational collapse, loose coupling could provide two advantages. Primarily, the independent associations would lend a hand to fix the problem, but when the problem is beyond repair loose coupling allows the smooth breakdown of the subsystem with out severe shock to the other sub-systems, and the entire system/network. This helps promote responsibility among the associations.
Allow more self-determination by actors
As mentioned above these associations do have their own established governing bodies. Hence loose coupling would allow them to continue exercise their rights and duties. And when the whole network is found to be unbeneficial, they may exercise their right of self determination. This liberty not only avoids the stress of many associations of being swallowed by a big fish, but also creates a healthy and demand driven collaboration among the associations.
Hence, though loosely coupled structure could have its own limitations, I would argue that it could be a probable way out for our associations both to maintain their identity and separateness and exercise the sense of unity and solidarity many of their members are seriously demanding. This loosely coupled organizational set up would also encourage these associations to pass through a learning loop of creating intimacy and a comfort zone that facilitates learning about each other, which in turn may ultimately lead to a creation of more tightly coupled organizational arrangement.