Knowledge Networks to empower micro enterprises and overcome national inequalities in Panama

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Initial situation and main challenges or opportunities addressed by the intervention

While Panama is experiencing steady economic and social development, the distribution of wealth and social services is highly polarized between urban and rural areas: over 66 per cent of the rural population lives in extreme poverty. A large majority of the rural population runs informal micro enterprises, but as a result of poor institutional environment for registering their businesses, limited access to resources and finance, and a general lack of business and management skills, they are unable to expand their operations and improve their livelihoods. The Government recognizes that unleashing the potential of these micro enterprises is key to overcome wider national inequalities as well as to foster the country’s future development and thus, it requested the assistance of the UN system.

Based on the general objective and expected results of the program, and according to the expertise of the UN participating agencies (FAO, UNWTO, UNCTAD, UNDP), a series of trainings and initiatives focused on capacity building and transfer of technologies and methodologies were included in the programme’s annual work plans. Regardless of the visible benefits of knowledge creation and dissemination by combined participation of multiple specialized agencies to tackle complex issues of poverty reduction and social development through productive activities, joint programming became a challenge rather difficult to overcome for some interventions. The lack of a single reporting cycle and format for the agencies and to a lesser extent the counterparts, was a cumbersome disadvantage for addressing certain challenges concerning the sound knowledge management of some activities, as it was experienced in Panama.

Intervention chosen to address the challenge or opportunity

In order to effectively organize the large amounts of information and knowledge produced by the programme, the need for the development of a user-friendly monitoring system where information could be stored, categorized and shared was identified. For this reason, it facilitated a web-based portal called SIMON (Spanish acronym for “Monitoring System”). The overall purpose of SIMON is to streamline information sharing by allowing actors to access relevant documents online at their convenience, and to utilize this knowledge sharing tool for monitoring from a result-based management perspective. This tool, developed for several joint programmes in Panama, not only allows for inter-agency information sharing, but sharing with national counterparts as well. In addition to centralizing information, as its name denotes, it also is a useful programme monitoring tool. Another feature of the programme has been requesting that all agencies provide the Coordination Unit with a copy of information (reports and data on areas of interventions, for example) and products (methodologies utilized, information gathered, trainings, etc.) related to the programme. The centralization of material, both in SIMON as well as the Coordination Unit, would ensure that all relevant information can be easily accessible to agencies as well as counterparts.

Results and Impacts

The programme has reached an appreciable success in the transfer of technologies and knowledge to beneficiaries. Where alignment of the various methodologies utilized by involved agencies has been possible, the promotion of a multi-sectorial approach has been more successful. However, in practice, it has been difficult to promote the efficiency and standardized use of this tool for several reasons: a) given its scope, institutionalizing its use from the beginning of the project was necessary; b) harmonization of the presentation of certain information in order to adhere to the different reporting formats used by donor, different agencies, and counterparts proved a cumbersome process; c) as a consequence of the lack of human resources to continually upload and update information, SIMON is often out of date or lacking information. With SIMON, the effort needed to achieve full buy-in from the actors, as well as the difficulties in maintaining the system up to date, are hurdles yet to be overcome by the programme.

Potential replication / scale-up of the intervention

There is certainly national and/or regional potential for putting into practice the synergistic effect of combining various agencies’ expertise in order to provide more holistic and broad-based transfer of knowledge and methods to beneficiaries and partners in implementation. On another note, a user-friendly system of efficient management, sharing and accessibility of information pertaining to projects and programmes, especially with regards to best practices, lessons learned and for use in monitoring and evaluation, is applicable at all levels.

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