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.

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