Why social engineering approaches fail to solve socio-political problems

A lot of the reform agendas in the field of natural resource management are framed by natural scientists and engineers. Molinga, Meinzen-Dick and Merrey show why their approaches often fail as they don’t keep the the political and network nature of water resource management reform in the picture:

Politics, Plurality and Problemsheds: A Strategic Approach for Reform of Agricultural Water Resources Management, by Peter P. Mollinga, Ruth S. Meinzen-Dick and
Douglas J. Merrey

They write:

“Our sketch of the contours of a ‘strategic action’ approach to policy reform, as an
alternative to a social engineering perspective, has the following three components.
(i) the benefits of a ‘problemshed’ rather than a ‘watershed’ perspective, i.e., using
‘issue network’ as the unit of analysis rather than ‘basin’;
(ii) the existence, relevance and advantages of plurality in organisations, institutions
and water-management objectives;
(iii) the operational implications of the specifics of the embeddedness and contextuality
of agricultural water management.”

New Case Study Online!

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) has extensively supported the construction, rehabilitation and governance development of small multi-purpose reservoirs in northern Ghana. But what are the effects of these investments on local water governance? Who controls the local Water Users’ Associations? How do users deal with conflicts of interest around the scarce resource water, in an area that experiences an 8 months dry season every year? And: How can Net-Map be used by a development agency as part of their project evaluation?

Go to “Case Studies” and read about our experience in an exploratory field visit to rural communities in the Kasena Nankana district.

Words can kill

“You can use Net-Map to get a better understanding of and maybe even negotiate positions in conflicts.” That’s something I would say in a talk… and be delighted to discuss afterwards, what the potentials and limitations of this method are. People who work with violent conflicts have warned me – and rightfully so – that in some situations words can kill and you wouldn’t want to start mapping and thus visualizing the interests of different groups during a complex violent conflict. Especially because you don’t want to expose your interview partners to revenge of those who disagree. With my middle-European background, I use the term “conflict” for a lot of social situations that are not violent and not physical and I was basically proposing the use of the method in this kind of situation (as in “conflict in your work team” which normally isn’t resolved by shooting each other).

On the other hand, it might be possible to benefit from knowing Net-Map when working with violent conflicts as well… Especially in long lasting complicated conflicts, it might help to organize one’s thoughts and understanding and to develop new coalitions for peace, if one mapped out everyone involved. And indicated, who has the goal of continuously spurring the conflict and who aims at supporting peace making efforts.

This might be a solitary exercise you undertake in your own office, to disentangle your complex and contradictory knowledge about the conflict. Or there might be points in a peace making process, where a group of people maps something together. Whether or not that is possible and useful is something to carefully consider. And that would be the job of someone who is not only an expert in conflict moderation in general but also has an in-depth knowledge of the specific conflict at hand and the actors involved.

Drawing a Net-Map about Water and Sanitation Issues in Bolga


Representatives from non-governmental organizations, traditional authorities and government agencies in Bolgatanga, the regional capital of the Upper East Region of Ghana, map and discuss, who can influence the sanitation behavior of local people. Bicycle ball bearings serve as locally available influence tower pieces.

Accomodate different styles of thinking

I have an extremely bad memory. When I try thinking about complex multi-layered political situations, a bad memory means that even though I might have an extensive knowledge of all the details, I fail to see the complete structure, because I can only think of one aspect of it at a time. When I move to the next aspect, the one I discovered before begins to fade already (What consoles me a bit is that research has found bad memory often to be linked with high creativity – in a brain that isn’t cluttered with sights of the past, there is a lot of space for new things).

While the last entry talks about some things that Net-Map does in groups, this is about a very personal experience that I make when mapping out things on my own – and in my individual interviews I have seen some of my interview-partners go through similar experiences. This is about using visualization to work with the fact that our minds are no machines. Even if people have all the facts they need, real understanding can only develop, if they can structure the facts and attach meaning to them.

Let me share some examples, how I saw different people use Net-Map, accommodating their different styles of thinking and getting to a higher understanding through it:

  1. The complex structural thinker with the bad memory (i.e. me): When using Net-Map you have all the answers to the past questions in front of you, while adding more answers to the same picture. Thus, without going back in your notes and just by looking at the evolving picture, you can understand, how specific patterns of informal and formal links overlap, how links, goals and influence of actors relate to each other and after putting it down in front of you, you have emptied your mind of thinking about details and can move to a higher level, where you interpret the picture to find specific structures and develop appropriate strategies.
  2. The one who knows too much to focus: In terms of memory, this would normally be the opposite of me, someone who has such a good memory that she would find everyone and their cousin to be involved in the network and knows so much about the specificities of each and every relationship and role, that she is completely overwhelmed and finds it difficult, to prioritize. I had interviewees who would mention over 45 actors to be involved in a governance activity where their colleagues only saw 20-25. Here Net-Map helps with two steps: By adding everyone (including the cousins) to the Net-Map, you acknowledge the complexity of the situation and the linkages. But by putting the actors on influence towers you learn to cut it down to a manageable size: Typically, in these over-complex networks, about a third of the actors were rated as “having no influence at all”. However, the effort of mapping out the whole structure is not wasted, because especially for strategic network planning, it is very important to broaden the perspective and think about potential future roles for actors who are not important at the moment.
  3. The one who thinks in terms of individuals, not structures: Some people tend to see individual interactions just as that, individual interactions and don’t normally look at the bigger picture. That makes them effective in their day to day activities but means that they might not realize their full potential in terms of strategic planning or political maneuvering. Also, they will waste a lot of energy on finding individual solutions again and again to problems that might be structural. Typically they would start the interview with a very small number of actors (maybe 6 or 7 in the same study where the over-complex thinkers thought of up to 47). By discussing and drawing all individual actors and links into the same map, they slowly build up the complexity of the picture and tend to add actors throughout the interview. Because they have drawn this structure by just adding simple individual components, the complex outcome tends to be still understandable to them and they can develop stronger skills in understanding and reacting to structures.

When you read this, you might think about your own style of thinking. Does it fall into these three groups? Or is there something else about the specific way your mind is structured that helps you to draw something from Net-Map? For me, these are all fresh thoughts and observations and I would be thrilled to get your views or experiences to broaden my perspective.

How can we stop the people from doing this?

I asked the participants of our Net-Map workshop in Bolgatanga, Ghana, what pressing issues out of their own work they would like to explore. This was a group of regional and district level government officials and representatives from NGOs, all somehow related to the water sector, concerned with drinking water, agricultural water use and nature conservation respectively.

One participant proposed: “I would like to talk about how we can improve the sanitation behavior in our communities. How can we teach people not to defecate around their houses and not to throw rubbish everywhere?”

Once I had introduced the basic steps of drawing the map, the group went head-first into a vivid discussion. As one participant told me later: “Eva, if you hadn’t pushed us to keep the time, we would have continued our discussion until late in the evening…”

Now what was the most remarkable thing that happened through the discussion? You can see that the group started with a question that puts all the blame on the individual who is showing wrong sanitation behaviour. But in Bolgatanga, though it’s a regional capital, about 75% of the population live in buildings without toilets or running water. And you can walk through the whole town without seeing any public dustbin.

After drawing a network of everyone who can influence the sanitation behaviour of the individual and putting them on influence towers, the discussion took a completely different direction:

  • “The district assembly should be on their toes. They should start planning 5-10 years ahead and implement sanitation strategies when new town development areas come up.”
  • “We have to sort out the issue of rubbish dumps. At the moment the districts like to dump their rubbish at un-registered sites in their neighbour district. We have to propperly set aside land for this and make sure the environmental impact assessment is done.”
  • “We have to take the building code more seriously and not allow people to build any new houses without toilets.”

Drawing a Net-Map led to a re-framing of the issue. The participants understood that this is not an individual but a structural problem; that it is not enough to teach and punish people into correct behaviour but that proper planning and infrastructure development are needed to provide opportunities and incentives for the desired behaviour. If there are no toilets, what is the individual supposed to do?

The most exciting experience for me was that this learning process happened with very minimal facilitation. I only gave them the most basic instructions, as in: “Write down all the actors who can influence the process” or “Put influence towers next to the actors.” Just by following these steps and discussing each move as they went along, the participants understood something crucial about the nature of this problem and developed concrete strategies to put this shift in thinking into action.

Notes from the field

I have arrived in Ghana now. The goal of this stay is to learn more about teaching Net-Map to groups of policy makers and researchers. I will facilitate two seminars where groups and individuals are encouraged to learn Net-Map by doing. The reason for this approach is twofold:

  • My research audience is new to the method. I want them to really experience how drawing influence network maps can inspire new ways of thinking and add a new dimension to the ways that members of a group can learn from each other. Because by listening to a presentation (or reading this blog for that matter) you won’t really understand whether the method “does something” for you.
  • Most of the policy makers have been participants of a net-map study. But that means, some outsider (me) guided them through the process of drawing the maps and interpreting them. I want to transfer real ownership of the method to my collaborators in Ghana. My ideal is that some of the members of the White Volta Basin Board and other policy makers in Northern Ghana would have their paper and pens and influence-tower pieces in the drawer of their desk and would draw maps just as one of the many ways of approaching the daily challenges of their jobs. And maybe, if they tried something really hard and still didn’t achieve their goals they would sit back and say: “Look, something is not going well, let’s try to map out how we have come this far”, understanding stumbling blocks and developing more effective strategies as they go.

The experience from these seminars will hopefully feed into a training video, because we have realized that it is so much easier to train people in the tool if they can watch you do it and don’t just read a paper manual.

Network Basics: Centralities

When I first got interested in Social Network Analysis, I lived in Bolgatanga, a small town in northern Ghana. As far as I knew, I was the only one of the 50 000 inhabitants of Bolga who had ever heard of the term or was even faintly interested in the concepts. I learned again, what a blessing the internet is – especially for those who live and work at the margins: Even though I had no peers around me that I could ask, I could learn whatever I needed on the internet.

But I also realized that a lot of the writing about SNA is done in a highly abstract expert language which makes it difficult – even for a social scientist like me – to get the first entry point into this system of thought. Because I wanted to share my knowledge with my colleagues in the field, I had to translate the basic SNA concepts into everyday language. I started with the “centrality measures”. They describe the position of individual actors in the network:

  • Degree centrality: How many links does one actor have? E.g. in a money network: How many people does this actor give money to and get money from. Because giving and getting money are very different activities, you can differentiate between in-degree (how many actors you get money from) and out-degree (how many actors you give money to).
  • Closeness centrality: How close is an actor to all others in the network? This is calculated is by counting all the links (direct and indirect) one actor needs to follow to reach all others in the network. E.g. someone wants to be up to date in terms of gossip. A high closeness centrality in the information network means that he can spread rumors to everyone very quickly and that he will hear what others have to say immediately. Closeness is a measure of “access”.
  • Betweenness centrality: How often does one actor lie on the shortest path between two others? This measure is related to “control” because someone who sits between two others who want to exchange e.g. information or money, can change the story, keep or delay the financial transfer and is informed about everything that happens between these two actors.
  • Eigenvector Centrality: How many links do the actors have that someone is linked to? Just counting links (as in “degree centrality”) might not be enough, because it does make a difference whether the actors you are linked to are themselves all dead ends or well connected. The spread of HIV/AIDS is a good example why eigenvector centrality matters. Someone can be absolutely faithful to their partner (degree centrality of 1 in the sexual contacts network); if the partner engages with a lot of other partners (high degree centrality), the faithful one has a high eigenvector centrality (being linked to a “well-connected” actor) and a high risk of infection.

While degree centrality is easily determined by counting the links an actor has, the other centralities require more complicated formulas. Luckily for those who want to understand the network parameters without becoming mathematicians or programmers, there are software solutions to calculate centralities and other network parameters. I like “Visualyzer” because of its user-friendliness, the most commonly used application seems to be UCINet, which is great for the more complex operations; both of them offer free trial versions to download. A basic text that goes into much more detail about network parameters is: Hanneman’s “Introduction to Social Network Methods” (http://faculty.ucr.edu/~hanneman/).