New Case Study Online: African Peer Review Mechanism Process

“It’s a very important tool, from the way we came out with the members. I was picturing how I was going to form this committee all alone, there was a big question mark as to who to choose, but through this method I have seen that certain groups are inevitable, looking at the coordination. The method has opened my mind and I would want to use it.” (District Director of the National Commission on Civic Education, Jirapa District, Ghana)
As I explored in an earlier post, “the civil society” is one of these buzz words that are easily used on the policy making level, but those people who are actually instructed to “involve the civil society” in their activities, face a difficult and confusing task, and, as our participant from the Jirapa District puts it, there are big question marks looming over their heads.

The new case study takes stock of the first activities using Net-Map to choose committee members for the APRM district oversight committees. I find it exciting for a number of reasons:

  • This is not a research or evaluation activity but a “quick ‘n dirty” project implementation use of Net-Map as a decision support tool.
  • This is African owned: Douglas Waale, a Ghanaian Net-Mapper uses the tool with staff members of the Ghana National Commission for Civic Education in a process spearheaded by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) of the African Union.

This is something worth observing closely, because I am convinced that Net-Map can be used as a tool for empowerment and that it is easily possible for all different kinds of people to take over ownership of Net-Map processes, define what they want to use it for and improve their understanding and decision making (Full Case Study: (334 KB).

Jennifer Hauck in Action


Her thoughts on Net-Map on the village level: see below.

Reaction from Accra

Jennifer Hauck, who is still busy with her research about local fisheries governance, is in Ghana at the moment and at reading my latest musings, sends me the following insights fresh from the field:

“Maybe a cobbler should stick to his last?

Tying up to the last blog: Do African villagers learn less from Net-Mapping than African policy makers? I can tell from my experience that it can certainly not be said that Net-Map “doesn’t work” on the village level! However, although I was urged as social scientist, who uses participatory research tools, to take care that the interview partner also takes his share of new insights home, this is much easier said than done.

I had the great pleasure to work with the extension agent Peter from the northern Ghanaian NGO Community Self Reliance Center. The way he approached groups and people was indeed much different from mine. He was equipped with group management tools and communications skills and his experience and openness helped him to immediately draw the attention of the people and to get his message across. Whereas I was constantly bothered with my information demand and ways how to shorten the process to not steal too much time from the people.

Experiences of a young research you might think. Well I don’t know, very often I thought that at least for me it might not be a good idea to unite too many functions within one person at a time. While I have no doubts that Peter could make Net-Map understandable for villagers working on an NGO level – I am sure that I could not do that while trying to answer scientific questions. ”

One very interesting thing here is her mentioning of time. It might just be that it’s only us, the researchers, who are in a hurry and that our research partners on the village level would prefer and better understand a Slow Rural Appraisal than a Rapid one… And: Maybe Peter could tell us something about the ways he would use Net-Map on the village level if it wasn’t for Jenny’s research…

Do African villagers learn less from Net-Mapping than African policy makers?

And if so, why?

Those who have heard me talk about Net-Map know that I get really excited when I talk about the learning experience of my participants of Net-Map activities. They jump off their seats afterwards, praising their new insights, thank each other (and not the facilitator) for all that they have learned etc. That is all true and – as other users report the same reactions – has nothing to do with me as a person (as in: interviewer bias).

However, when Jennifer Hauck came back from the Ghanaian villages where she interviewed local users of small reservoirs, her experience was different: While Net-Map worked very well to help her to learn more about the networks, the local, mostly illiterate, fishermen, fishmongers and traditional authorities, showed no such excitement. We have discussed a lot about the reasons for this difference. And, again (with regards to potential interviewer bias), I have gone to do some village level interviews later and had a similar experience.

We have discussed a lot about this though without really figuring out, where the difference comes from. However, here are some thoughts: Most of our village level interview partners never (or rarely) use pens and papers in their daily life and they don’t live in an environment where things on paper have any relevance for the way they organize their thoughts. Thus it might just be that no matter how strongly we believe this method to be low tech, non-intimidating, intuitively understandable and down to earth, it actually is not for our village level interviewees. One indicator was that our village level interview partners would mainly look into the face of the interpreter while answering our questions, and only glimpse at the maps that we drew from their answers, while our policy maker interviewees would mainly look at the maps and actively interfere and point at things we should draw – I guess if you generally live a paper-less life, then other people are your main reference point for sorting out your thoughts.

However, there might be a second reason, why our village level interviewees seemed far less excited by the exercise: In a rather traditional system their social networks and influence structures may be much more confined, stable and straightforward, so that “sorting out this complex influence network” is not a very pressing need for them. On the other hand, for our regional policy makers (who lived only few kilometers away from the fishermen – though in a completely different universe…) the fact that the networks they engaged in were complex, unclear, overlapping and dynamic seemed to be a rather confusing aspect of their work, those who knew and managed their networks better seemed to be more successful and Net-Map seemed to fit exactly into their need to organize their thoughts and knowledge and understanding of these complex networks.

This all is not to say that Net-Map “doesn’t work” on the village level. However, if we are honest to ourself, so far we have used it more as a tool for data collection than for facilitation of learning. I’m looking forward to my next time of working on the village level, to figure out how far these ideas resonate and to see if it makes a difference if you engage people physically in network exercises. I will play with the way Boru Douthwaite and his colleagues asked participants to represent actors and use colorful thread to indicate communication links.

Less techy

What I love about blogging is that I can throw my ideas out there as they come and someone might catch them, add their own experience and together we create something new. Nancy White of Full Circle Associates does want to use Net-Map online, but does not want to bother the participants with too many techy requirements. So she explains network mapping of the basic pen and paper variety and asks her participants to upload digital pictures of the results and discuss the experience online. Maybe you want to participate and share your experience?

Mapping together

Below I have explored the idea of using Net-Map (through two computer applications called Visualyzer and GoToMeeting) in real time with groups all over the world online. While looking at ways how people can think together online, I came across this very instructive post about Online Graphic Organizers by Miguel Guhlin. He explores different free programs for drawing Mind Maps via the internet. Mind Maps are (mostly) not social networks (as in: actors connected by links) but rather networks of issues or ideas where a central idea is connected to branches of sub-ideas or sub-issues. I had a look at one application that he proposes called and it looks very useful.

Update: If you want to know it all, look at Vic Gee’s comment below and check out Vic’s comprehensive overview of tools for mind-mapping on-line and off-line.

Facts are Facts – Perception is Reality

A colleague said this to me yesterday and after I stopped laughing it got me thinking.

Because with a method such as Net-Map you basically record people’s perceptions. Some of them are rather easily consolidated with what we could call hard facts (e.g. flows of funds, formal lines of command).

But if you ask: Who puts political pressure on whom? Or: Who is how influential? The answers will differ and there is no external omniscient author to this story, who we could ask to verify the answers. Everybody sees their own little corner of the network and imagines the parts that they cannot see, just like ancient cartographers, who were rather correct in mapping their direct surroundings but added three-headed monsters to the margins of the world as known by them.

Sometimes it pays to be on the safe side and only ask for the irrefutable facts. But it is important to be aware that: Perception is reality. What do I mean by that and why is that so important for social scientists?

Decisions are made and executed based of perceptions. So even though they are elusive and difficult to measure and may change every time the wind blows from a different direction: If we don’t deal with perceptions, we will not understand how social processes work.

And: The three-headed monsters that people imagine at the fringe of their networks can impact on decision-making just as much as the happenings in the well-known parts of the network. This is one of the reasons why collaborative network mapping can be such a strong social development tool: It’s like bringing cartographers from different continents together and thus one can fill in the blank spaces of the other and the resulting cognitive social structure is more closely connected to the facts. And less populated with three-headed monsters.

Do people or organisations form a network?

When I ask: “Who can influence this-and-that?” as a first step in a Net-Map exercise, it depends very much on the “this-and-that”, on the context and on the interviewees, whether they will come up with a lot of

  • organisations (Ministry of XY, NGOs, women’s groups, etc.) or
  • groups of people who do similar things or have similar characteristics (fishermen, market women, school children) or
  • individuals.

There are two reasons why it might make sense to be more specific at this point, to define more clearly, what actors you want to involve.

1. One reason is the data analysis, especially if you want to compare different maps and do so in a more structured and quantitative way. If for example you want to lay maps on top of each other to develop a cognitive social structure, it becomes difficult if your interview-partners name actors on very different levels and you want to combine them. For example the Minister of Agriculture is not exactly the same as the Ministry of Agriculture. But it also doesn’t make sense to map them as two completely distinct actors.

2. The second reason lies in the use of the maps as a basis for strategic action. If you want to really plan your next steps on the base of this map, it might not be enough to know that your organisation is somehow linked to an organisation that is of importance to you. If you want to contact them, then one individual in your organisation will pick up the phone, write an email or walk over and knock at the door of one individual of that organisation. So, while you want to contact the organisation, you want to identify what personal links exist between the two.

While thinking about this, I read about one of the many tools that are called “power mapping” and what I like here is a two step approach: First you map all the institutions/organizations that might be relevant in your case. Then, as a second step you think about individuals in these organizations that you know or know of. By drawing the links between these individuals (that are placed around the organizations) you can think more strategically about possibilities of using these individuals as entry points to their organizations. This will at least be useful to solve problem number two (in the action oriented use of the method).

Social Networks and the evaluation of development projects

If this headline catches your eye, I believe that Rick Davies’ website is an interesting spot for getting more information and thought about why and how development projects unfold in network manners, how we can understand the drivers of Most Significant Changes and what paradigm shifts are necessary to incorporate this thinking into mainstream monitoring and evaluation of development projects. Also, check out his very active Monitoring and Evaluation mailing-list.

Shaping a brighter future: Net-Map in post-conflict situations

Evans Omari sent me a comment (see “about” section), asking how Net-Map could be used in “capacity development for local governance in a post-conflict transitional support situation”. While I don’t know the particulars of this specific case, I can think of two possible lines of application.

  1. As tool to understand the conflict and facilitate the re-conciliation process (focus on the conflict).
  2. As a tool to understand the governance situation as is and build and support governance structures that will help everyone to pick up the pieces and work towards a better future (focus on post-conflict governance).

I have said a bit about the use of Net-Map to understand conflict below. So now I would like to focus on the second case, building sustainable structures in a situation where the governance system and the society as a whole has been seriously affected by a conflict.

Let’s say you work on re-establishing the health sector. I would start by asking those who have been working in the field or observing it for a longer time, to map out how the situation is today, who influences what happens in this sector, how they are linked, how influential they are and what their goals are. I would make sure, that all parties of the past conflict and external observers have a say here. Depending on the fear and tensions that still exist, it might make sense to do the initial interviews with individuals and not as a group.

From that mapping of the situation as is, I would start a discussion with them about: What are the most burning issues that need to be resolved now? What would the functioning health system in the future look like if everything went well? What are your core priorities? Then I would facilitate a group process where people draw Net-Maps about: What kind of influence networks would we have to develop to reach this vision?

Through getting to this shared vision the group would have a clearer understanding of what they are striving for and how they might achieve it. But also, the group process of getting to this together can set free a lot of positive energy and understanding of each other’s position. To do this in a group meeting also means that the participants make a common public commitment to this plan that they draw together. And finally, it gives them a tool to assess a few years down the road, if they have come to where they intended to go and what the reasons for achievements and failures were.

Evans, does that answer your question?