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How Start Network challenges the way members operate in the humanitarian sector

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Concern Worldwide was one of the founding members of the Start Network when it was first conceived under the Consortium of British Humanitarian Agencies (CBHA) 10 years ago. Since then it has been an active member.

Here Bob Ruxton, Director of Programme Support at Concern, shares with us some thoughts on being a member of the Start Network and highlights the importance of working collectively in challenging the system and the potential of the hubs as the source of future energy for the Start Network.

Rose Caldwell, Concern UK Executive Director, was initially the member Assembly representative for Concern and this passed onto Bob Ruxton in 2012 when he joined Concern as Director of Programme Support. Bob had previously been working in long term development programmes, as an Oxfam Country Director in India, then for many years in VSO’s London headquarters, and in an interim capacity with CAFOD just before joining Concern. His role with Concern was the first time he’d worked with a dual mandate in both development and humanitarian emergencies.  Bob has now been the Start Network assembly representative for Concern for the past seven years, has been a Board member since 2014 and also sits on the Start Fund and Membership committees.


Can you talk about how you first get involved with what now is the Start Network?

Although I knew a little of the work the CBHA was doing through Matthew Carter’s involvement when I was at CAFOD, it was only when I joined Concern that I first got to learn what the Start Network was about. It was an interesting time as it was just when DFID announced that following the successful pilot of the CBHA emergency response fund they were now going to launch their own fund rather than continue support of this initiative - the focus at this time was very much on the pooled fund and the collaborative ownership of this.  Without DFID funding, we were essentially living just on membership contributions.


Have there been any surprises along the way?

I didn’t come from a humanitarian background and only when I got involved with the Start Network did I realise how difficult it is to influence donors or multi-laterals unless you work collectively. It was a lesson rather than a surprise. I came to really care about the Start Network and its ability to influence donors and ways of working by acting together.

The one thing that I love about the Start Network is that we don’t just talk about doing things differently, we actually do it, demonstrating to the humanitarian sector by example. The Start Fund, for instance, models a completely different way of working that is fast, employs collective decision-making and manages risk.


How has Concern benefited from its continued membership of the Start Network?

The Start Fund has prompted us to think in terms of under-the-radar crises and very rapid responses, and the Start Network has helped Concern open up and work more collaboratively both on sharing learning and on joint responses to crises.

As an organisation, we have been a bit cautious about diving into the various initiatives of the Start Network, though I would love to see Concern involved in the work on innovations in humanitarian financing. We were involved in the Shifting the Power project under the DEPP portfolio during 2017 and 2018 and in a few countries, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, Concern’s country teams are very much part of the work with other actors to change the system. I think plenty of Start Network members struggle at times to put the wider need for system change first, above the interests of their own organisations, and Concern is no exception to that.  For example, we all believe that donors should give us more autonomy, but we’re quite good at coming up with reasons why this isn’t the right time to hand over decision-making to our own national and local partners.  In that sense, there’s sometimes a tension – but hopefully healthy - between the direction of the organisation centrally and the way our frontline staff see the world.


What continues to drive Concern to be part of the Start Network?

There is, of course, the potential for funding from the Start Fund, and as with the other networks and memberships we have, the worry that if we are not part of the Start Network we may be missing out. But there is more to it, there is something quite unique about the Start Network. Acting collectively is much more effective than trying to do these things by ourselves. Clusters of NGOs, international and local, will see that by building a platform together in their own country they will make things happen better than if they worked only within their own organisations. This is why the development of the hubs is so important. The future energy for the Start Network will come from these hubs.


Where would you like to see the Start Network in another 10 years’ time?

I would like to see the development of a UK hub. One that brings together UK organisations into a single platform that works to trail blaze changes to the humanitarian sector through continuing to challenge our donors and our organisations to operate differently. CAFOD has made significant changes to how it operates so that the power is being shifted and it is important that organisations in the UK continue to challenge each other in this way.


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