The Leadership and Innovation Network for Children (LINC) is a large-scale multi-stakeholder and multi-year network, with the long-term goal of improving the quantity and quality of care for the millions of South African children orphaned or made vulnerable by HIV/AIDS.
Convened in 2007, and drawing on the Social Labs approach, LINC broke new ground on ideas of dialogue, collaboration, and innovation.
The first “Innovation Lab” comprised 60 key figures in South Africa’s children’s sector: senior civil servants of key government departments, heads of the major civil society organizations active for children, directors of corporate responsibility in some of the country’s largest companies, and leading academics, international donors, and community leaders.
Today, LINC serves around 100 fellows in the sector. It is building the capacity of these leaders to think systemically and to proactively collaborate; shifting institutional arrangements in the sector to enhance cohesion, collaboration, and coordination; and creating opportunities for leaders and their organizations to innovate and launch solutions. One participant called it “an oasis of information in the children’s sector.”
“We may feel that we are not succeeding because the ‘product’ is lagging,” said one fellow at a time when innovation was moving slowly. “But the relationships and networks that have been built are possibly even more valuable. The fellowship offers a way of working together and engaging which fundamentally affects the quality of the product.”
LINC was initiated in the mid 2000s by social entrepreneur Ann Lamont, Mille Bojer (now of Reos Partners), and Barry Smith of Synergos. In 2007, the lab was convened by Reos partners, Convene Venture Philanthropy, the Synergos Institute, the South African Department of Social Development, and the African Leadership Initiative. In 2011, management of the programme passed from Convene to Synergos.
Staggering scale. In Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 15 million children have lost one or both parents to AIDS. Of these, South Africa is home to 2.5 million. In South Africa, hundreds of thousands of households are headed by youths under 19 years old, and more than 10 million children under age 18 live in conditions of poverty, homelessness, and scarcity.
Generative complexity. The challenge has been unprecedented in that it is the first time in human history that those left behind in the wake of a great crisis—think of plague, war, and famine—are the children and the elderly. The traditional extended family system cannot absorb so many children, and nor can orphanages (which in any case are unhealthy places to grow up and in conflict with African cultural values).
Social complexity. There has been much disagreement on the best approach, both logistically and psychologically, and also much competition for funding and territory in the NGO sector and within and between government departments. Complicating matters are AIDS denialism, stigma and “compassion fatigue.”
Dynamic complexity. The source and the effects of the problem are spread out in space and time. HIV transmission today may mean orphans in 10 years; those orphans may have problems as adults. Singling out children orphaned or left vulnerable by HIV/AIDS when many others are vulnerable due to widespread poverty creates its own set of issues. Meanwhile, government grants may not reach the intended groups, and interventions may be reactive and focused on the short-term.
LINC today offers events that promote learning, networking, and collaboration; individual and group coaching; innovation initiatives; and an online social network and portal. The ongoing, systemic work of the innovation teams and the group as a whole culminated in five focus areas and corresponding initiatives:
Leadership and capacity in local government
Local governments were overburdened and understaffed, bearing a great deal of responsibility for children’s issues but unable to manage the workload. This innovation team worked to build the leadership and capacity for effective responses.
This innovation team worked to build capacity within community organisations and NGOs. It prototyped innovative models of care and new ways of expanding access to social welfare resources.
Donor coordination and funding flows
This team comprised international donors, governments, cooperatives, and foundations working to put the issue of orphaned children high on the lists of global funders. The participants innovated new ways of measuring and demonstrating the impact of child welfare efforts and worked to raise the issue’s global profile.
Organisation of the children’s sector
This innovation team worked to build better systems collaboration between the South African Department of Social Development, local NGOs, funders, and local businesses.
A comprehensive database
This technical group, eventually incorporated into UNICEF, worked to improve monitoring and information on the social welfare system and its clients to better map where help and support were needed most.
“We shifted some deep rifts in the sector”
“We definitely created some structured spaces for critical conversations to happen; those had never happened before. I think that certainly we shifted some deep rifts in the sector. We certainly shifted a lot of personal relationships and we did shift some levels of collaborative relationship amongst the broader stakeholder groups, so I think in terms of, did we contribute to greater collaboration and cohesion in the sector? Yes we did. Is it nearly enough? No.”
“It inspired me, helped me to feel . . . connected to others in the field”
“I remember sitting at a table of women all about my age and in a similar situation, that basically it was a sense of loss we had and how that had called us to do this kind of work. I had a really deep connection with the other women who were part of that. I found that very enriching—to hear my own call again. Definitely, it inspired me, helped me to feel congruent with what I was doing and more connected to others in the field.”
“The only forum of its kind that I’ve been in”
“There’s a proper network of people, so you get people to see from different perspectives. It’s the only forum of its kind that I’ve been in where all the parties talked openly and honestly about their challenges. For the first time you get a sense there are people in government who do give a shit, what are their annoyances with NGOs, that they feel they’re on their own delivering services.”
“An opportunity to talk to each other. It leveled the playing field”
“There had been different forums where we gathered, we might have met funders and the department separately or NGOs plus the department, but here it let the three categories come together. To bring the funders in, as well as government, created an opportunity to talk to each other. It leveled the playing field. The facilitators created a non-power environment to talk together on same level—that’s unusual —from the start. The activities and the facilitation were excellent in doing that.”