The multiple balancing act of virtual communities in peace and development


  • Gerd Junne
  • Willemijn Verkoren


The devastating conflicts in many developing countries have triggered many NGOs to devote increasing attention to conflict prevention, conflict transformation and post-conflict development. In each of the prominent conflict countries (like Afghanistan, East Timor, Kosovo), several hundred foreign NGOs are active. They come from different corners: humanitarian NGOs, human right organisations, development oriented institutions, and NGOs specialising in peace building, mediation or reconciliation.

Once in a conflict area, the different organisations have to cooperate with each other. For that, they need to understand each other. They also discover that their work overlaps, that they should share information, that their staff needs similar preparation before being sent there, that they can learn from each other and that they can complement each other. They all possess specialised knowledge which would help the others to fulfil their own specific tasks. The development organisations realise that they need a clearer grasp of conflict dynamics, and the peace and conflict oriented organisations conclude that sustainable peace can only be reached if some economic development takes place.

This situation has given rise to a large number of networks which try to bring together experience from different types of organisation to help each of them to face the challenges of conflict-torn societies. Many of these networks try to create virtual communities to improve the exchange of information and experience and to enhance the cooperation between the members. In many cases, however, this does not immediately help to achieve the aspired results.

This article describes a number of problems which have to be solved by all virtual communities in the initial phase of their existence , building on two case studies of networks. These case studies will be discusses in parts one and two of the article. Next, the lessons that can be drawn form their experience are summarised into a list of ten issues that networks have to deal with. These include problems with regard to the people involved, the content of their exchange, the way they work together, and the products that result from their cooperation. On all these dimensions, one can err on both sides.

The conclusion sums up a number of lessons which similar initiatives should take into account, if they want to make a long-term contribution to the knowledge exchange between members of their constituencies: Flexibility and sensitivity to changing circumstances is an important condition of success. Being concrete on objectives could also contribute to the continued (perceived) relevance of a community. It is also important to have sufficient focus in terms of both content and membership. Finally, finding the right balance in the ten dimensions dealt with in the article. This can make the difference between success and failure of a knowledge network. In all the dimensions, flexibility and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is also paramount in a field that grows and changes almost daily.