The Power of RELI Networks, for Shared Learning and Transforming Organisations 

By Deborah Kimathi 

I’ve had the privilege of serving as Country Lead for RELI Kenya since late 2017. To describe it as a rollercoaster would be an understatement. It has however, been an extremely rewarding and fulfilling journey.   

I took on the job when I was just a couple of months into my new role as Executive Director at Dignitas.  RELI was also still a baby, and the future was unknown for both. It was clear that there was potential in RELI, and excitement around the possibility of bringing together a community of education actors, united by their focus on improving learning for children typically left behind. 

Why RELI? 

  • Our sector is often uncoordinated, with different organisations competing unnecessarily, and functioning in silos that simply make everyone less effective. As a result, resource is often poorly utilised, and fails to realise its full potential. 
  • Partnerships are often not as collaborative as they should be. Collaboration has become a buzz-word, rather than a genuine pursuit of bringing together collective effort and resource towards a shared vision for the benefit of our learners. 
  • There is unrealised strength in numbers – strength that brings together varied sets of expertise, insight and experience to design, implement and evaluate for collective impact that will genuinely enable transformation in the communities we seek to serve. And when we communicate as one, we are unstoppable. 
  • Finally, in development work, power often lies in the Global North, and there is need to shift that power to communities, actors and partners in the Global South. RELI has been one avenue of pursuing this – giving voice to individuals and organisations who may never have had a voice on their own. 

RELI members and partners rallied around three shared objectives: 

Transforming Organisations – As the saying goes, ‘iron sharpens iron’ and we all recognised that by coming together we could improve one another by learning, sharing and growing together. In the spirit of a shared vision, and with a focus on the bigger picture that unites us, there was no need for us to repeat each other’s mistakes, or to compete in an unhealthy way. With valuable external support for Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning, and Strategic Communications, we could strengthen each other and build a more impactful ‘whole’. 

Building knowledge and evidence – one way to address the power balance in the development sector is to nurture knowledge and evidence rooted in the realities, the practices, the contexts and the cultures of the Global South. During the covid-19 pandemic, we saw that the most impactful responses and solutions were those rooted in the communities they sought to help. Those who best knew how to support children in need were, not surprisingly, those closest to them in culture and context.  Further, a Global South oriented knowledge and evidence hub will, I believe, help to bridge the (often, devastating) gap between research and practice, that can result in wasted time, resource and finance. 

Policy influencing – all RELI members, by definition, are working towards improved learning outcomes for children in East Africa.  With this shared goal as a uniting force, we can join our voices around shared asks to policymakers, and ensure one longer, louder, stronger call for the changes we collectively believe in.  This has given us influence beyond what we initially imagined, and afforded RELI members an opportunity to support the writing, dissemination, and implementation of important policy documents for the education sector. 

There is power in networks.  Whilst network management is sometimes messy and always complex, networks also hold great potential for transformation. Transformation within our sector, and transformation within the communities we serve. 

Now, almost four years later, with a global pandemic thrown in for good measure, it is time for me to hand over the mantle.  We’ve seen great growth over the last four years, and none of that would have been possible without a fantastic team at the helm. It has been an absolute privilege to learn from and with Dr. Joyce Malombe, Dr. John Mugo, Ng’ang’a Kibandi, and the amazing teams at Well Made Strategy (WMS)the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC), and Centre for Research & and Innovations in East Africa (CRI). I want to appreciate and say thank you, to everyone who listened to my questions, ideas, and dreams over the last four years! 

I am very excited to be handing over the mantle to Ng’ang’a Kibandi, who will be joined by a new Country Lead, Sam Otieno. RELI Kenya will thus remain in strong, capable hands. By no stretch of the imagination, will I be leaving RELI as I step back from being Kenya’s country lead. Dignitas is still part of this vibrant community and I will continue to seek out opportunities to serve and further the mission of RELI.  I will serve on the leadership team in an advisory role for a period of transition and I look forward to new seasons of growth, influence and impact. 

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