Christian Herrmann

Kommune goes International: Strengthening networks on the ground

Strong networks between local partners are vital for establishing international youth work at the local level, where a variety of organisational cultures and objectives coexist. Dealing with this constructively, widening networks and improving network quality were all on the agenda of the annual Kommune goes International conference in Cologne.

KGI-Netzwerktreffen, Köln 2016
BildImage: Meike Böschemeyer | VIGILUX Pressefoto

Around 30 representatives from the local authorities in the Kommune goes International (KGI) network travelled to Cologne on 10 May 2016 to attend the annual KGI conference. “This is the first time so many existing and new members have decided to attend the meeting,” commented IJAB Programme Associate Jana Ehret happily as she opened the conference. KGI is not just a major national network, however; it is also more than the sum of its parts, namely the many local networks that have decided to firmly establish international youth work structures in their cities, towns and districts. How are public and independent organisations working together on the ground? How can partners outside of child and youth services – schools, chambers of trade, job centres – be invited into the networks? What do you need to know to be a good network builder? At the Cologne meeting, participants reflected critically on their own networking activities.

The youth policy framework

The Federal Government’s 15th Child and Youth Report, to be published by an expert commission before the end of this year, will be all about personality development and educational expectations among young people. According to Albert Klein-Reinhardt, responsible for European and international youth policy at the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), international youth work operates at the interface between personality development and education. For Klein-Reinhardt, however, the Child and Youth Report is just one of many youth policy touchpoints for KGI and for activities to strengthen international youth work as a non-academic place of learning. In his youth policy-themed address, he referred to the Government’s youth strategy 2015-2018, which is an umbrella for all of the Government’s youth policy activities, the implementation of the EU Youth Strategy in Germany, and the reform of the Child and Youth Plan of the Government.

“Young people need to know what opportunities are open to them,” he emphasised. For that to happen, there needs to be more information and counselling as well as more partners such as the media, schools, and job centres, he continued. For the Ministry, the aim is to “enable all young people to enjoy international learning.” For this, he stated, reliable statistics were needed in order to understand how many young people were getting access to international youth work projects – or not, as the case may be – and what the determining factors are. The Ministry has already joined forces with Robert Bosch Stiftung to fund a research project all about access and barriers to international youth work.

Klein-Reinhardt also referred to the major challenges the local authorities face in meeting the needs of young refugees, stating that young immigrants have always been one of the target groups of the youth policy initiative JiVE and its sub-initiatives, of which KGI is one. This, he said, was fully in line with the 2001 decision of the Conference of Youth Ministers of the state and federal governments, which recognises international youth work as “an important contribution towards society’s efforts to integrate individuals from other cultures and enable their peaceful coexistence”.

Reflecting on network building

Sabine Wißdorf from the institute for social planning and organisational development IN/S/O provided some input on network building. Wißdorf also advises the IJAB project “Internationale Jugendarbeit im Plan”, which receives support from the Innovation Fund of the Federal Government’s Child and Youth Plan. She explored the importance of networked communication and the circumstances under which it can achieve maximum success and impact. According to Wißdorf, one of the challenges is that traditional environments and institutional frameworks are losing significance. In other words, those who believe that youth centres and youth clubs are the only players worth bringing on board when reaching out to young people are on the wrong track. A broad interpretation of networking also requires an awareness that partners are supported via a variety of channels and that they hence have different objectives. “Of course a job centre will have a different take on things than the youth department in a local authority,” as Wißdorf put it. If you want to run a network successfully, she said, it’s necessary to abandon all traditional institutional logic. “If you contribute input to a network, it has to carry your handwriting. That goes for all parties to the process. Networks where one party tells another what do to will fail,” she explained.

Another challenge, says Wißdorf, is what kind of mandate actors are given by their local authorities. It makes a difference whether the operational unit of a local authority is simply signed up to a network because that’s what it wanted, or whether it was actually given a formal political mandate to do so by a higher level. “It’s not enough for your boss to say, you can go as long as someone else takes care of your travel expenses,” she said. It’s much easier to argue your corner when your activities are formally mandated, she concluded.

Fresh input for local-level networks

The group split into two working groups before embarking on a search for potential partners for the local KGI networks. Ferdinand Rissom from German Sports Youth explained why it makes sense to reach out to local sports clubs. There’s 90,000 sports clubs in Germany, even the tiniest villages have one. They have millions of young members from all walks of life who engage in sports together regardless of their backgrounds. “We’re not a sports association,” explained Wissom. “We use sports as a channel for youth work, and international youth work is a natural part of that.”
InterCityYouth is a European network for quality development in youth work. Their aim is to create a shared European understanding of what youth work means, as Tarja Marks from Munich’s youth services department explained. Can the KGI network manage to communicate the international youth work perspective there? Could this possibly also result in new contacts for the German organisations in other European countries? A brief discussion ensued on these questions, which will have to be continued.

Cooperation and quality development

The science-backed networking concept of the district administration of Mayen-Koblenz was explained by Michael Kock in a workshop. Kock coordinates the various support activities for refugees on the ground, and networks are a crucial success factor for his work. He consistently lobbies the authorities to take a more open and intercultural stance, but also has some projects of his own. He is familiar with the strategic dimension of networking and the importance of a formal political mandate from above, as Sabine Wißdorf described, but also knows that the day-to-day work in this field is very much influenced by the human factor, for better or worse. Hence, he explained, it’s important to recognise and respect the structure of an organisation, to acknowledge partners as “autonomous organisations” and to refrain from patronising them.

For Kock, an important target group consists of young adult refugees aged between 19 and 24 who have completed school but so far have no access to vocational training or the labour market. “No one feels responsible for them, and we can’t reach out to them via youth centres because they don’t go there,” he said. International youth work may be a solution here, he hoped. This triggered a lively debate. Do refugees really want to head abroad? “It’s not about the formats of international youth work, it’s about the methods. We have a lot to offer in that respect,” suggested Inge Kilian from Bremen.

Quality dialogues are a quality development instrument that is frequently used in the field of child and youth services. It involves inviting clients in receipt of social services to be actively involved in the dialogue and assigning them the role of advisor. Sabine Wißdorf from the institute for social planning and organisational development IN/S/O presented the method and transferred it to a local international youth work context. She advised safeguarding professional standards, but also to communicate achievements publicly, to initiate political debates, and to never cease giving visibility to support for international youth work. “Put together facts and figures and make strong statements about effectiveness! Build up a collection of success stories and use it!” she recommended. KGI partners have already had good experiences with this strategy, garnering political commitments and decisions by the authorities. That said, they also know that that is not enough and that more work is required. “It’s no use having thousands of formal decisions and then nothing happens, for instance when visa problems just aren’t resolved,” complained Andrea Krieger from Hamburg’s family services department. But she is not willing to admit defeat. After all, the overall objective of KGI, namely to strengthen international youth work politically and create stable structures, is a process, not a state. Local authorities have no doubt embarked on a demanding journey, but one that is – as everyone agreed – worthwhile for young people.

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