“If you are stolen, call the police at once”

“Please omnivorously put the waste in garbage can. Deformed Man Lavatory”
These are examples given by Michael Errard in his thought provoking essay about how Chinglish (a hybrid between Chinese and English) might become one important language of the future. His post: “How English is evolving into a language we may not even understand” in the Wired Magazine, came up as an “automatically generated possibly related post” to my musings about African English and while this function normally comes up with rather useless stuff, in this case it didn’t. So read his post and understand why “Our goalie not here yet, so give chance, can or not?” might actually be a more efficient use of this language we still call English…

Let’s not call a “spade” a “big spoon”

I’m always amazed at the way English is not one but many languages. Maybe, by not being a native speaker and moving around a bit between different English speaking areas, I’ve become more aware of the potential misunderstandings than most of my British or American or ex-British-colonies friends.

One good example is the term “motivation”. I’ve been discussing motivation issues with some African colleagues recently; they were talking about how motivation determines whether or not groups of local experts get their work done. I could only guess that the Americans in the room thought about someting completely different than what we were talking about.

So I said: “When I moved to Ghana, I was quite confused when I first heard people talk about motivation. You know, in Germany motivation is something like a feeling, your inner drive to really want to do something. And I know that, at least in Ghana, motivation is something that puts some weight into your pocket…” One of the Africans looked at me: “What do you mean, a feeling?” And after I went on explaining it and saw the Americans nodding in agreement, he laughed: “Ok, let’s not call a spade a big spoon. When we say motivation, we mean money.” What impressed me was that there seems to be agreement about the use of the term in East, West and Southern Africa.

HIV/AIDS and Nutrition

How does HIV/AIDS affect the ability of people and communities in poor countries to feed themselves? How does food insecurity increase the risk of HIV infection? RENEWAL, the Regional Network on AIDS, Livelihoods and Food Security (lead by Stuart Gillespie, IFPRI) is a network-of-networks that attempts to further locally relevant research around the issue of AIDS and nutrition and the integration of research findings in policy processes. I find it one of the most exciting initiatives at IFPRI at the moment and I admire the bravery of the researchers to venture into this truely complex, dynamic, cross-disciplinary and confusing field. This is obviously an endevour where network knowledge and management are crucial to achieve improvements – I think the following quote from their website provides interesting food for thought:

“When considering responses, there also remains an over-emphasis on individuals as passive victims, overcome by AIDS – rather than as innovators. Too few studies seek to capture and learn from the many innovations that are underway. Policy response is also compartmentalized – even at the level of clinical nutritionists rarely interacting with food security specialists on issues of household and community food and nutrition security. Another problem is that monitoring and evaluation, frequently weak throughout development, is particularly weak or non-existent when it comes to tracking the HIV-relevant impacts of non-health policy. […]

In addition, capacity is constrained by the predominant vertical sectoral approach to response – even in countries where HIV is deeply rooted and where the policy environment has been the most conducive, there is limited evidence of a true multi-sectoral response, beyond declarations made on paper. ”

Today and tomorrow I will have the pleasure to work with RENEWAL’s country coordinators, drawing networks about the situation as is now and the strategic vision for the future when IFPRI’s role in the project will be less pronounced and ownership will rest more strongly in the hands of the countries.

Incentives, institutional boundaries and life bird traders

I’m sitting here comparing the Net-Maps we have drawn to understand the risks and interventions around avian flu in different African countries and that gets me thinking about incentives and institutional boundaries (more info about the project). Both Ghana and Ethiopia impressed me in their considerably fast reaction to the threat. Avian flu, with its risk of bird to human transmission seems to be scary enough for international and national agencies alike to do their best.

The leading actors in country that diseminate information and react to outbreaks are generally located within the Ministries of Agriculture. Which makes sense, as they are the ones concerned with farmers and that’s where the outbreaks and the spread of the disease always happen… Now, do they?

Well, in Africa, due to logistical challenges (no cooling), most chickens basically stay alive and intact (and able to spread the disease) till they reach the end consumer. That makes everyone involved in the trade of life birds a potential threat to animal (and human) health. But while farmers get compensated for birds that are culled (incentive to report outbreak), receive information from their agricultural extensionists and are the main focus of the attention, somehow traders easily seem to fall through the grid. They are not the main focus of the Ministries of Agriculture (though some do have veterinarians inspecting life bird markets) and if they don’t qualify for compensation schemes they have a strong incentive to rather sell off sick birds (further spreading the disease) than to report cases. And because they are mobile, they are crucial in spreading the disease in different regions and  across borders.

In Ghana I asked whether corruption could slow down the reporting of and reaction to an outbreak. While none of our participants could imagine that from the farmer’s side (as they only get compensated for culled birds and not for those that have died from the disease, they have an incentive to report as soon as possible), they said that especially in cross boundary trade corruption (bribing of border officials to not “see” that the birds are sick) is very likely.

Now the question is: Is this a case where we can think of a water-tight control mechanism that makes sure that trader related cases don’t go un-noticed? Or is it possible to institute an incentive system (and involve those government agencies concerned with trade) to make traders want to report? What would these solutions look like in practice?

By the way, our colleagues in Nigeria report that the traders were aware of some outbreaks before the Ministries even knew about them. So integrating them more closely in the whole system might not only help to reduce the risk that they spread the disease but might also make early warning systems more efficient.

Network learning left and right

At the annual meeting of Knowledge Management for Development (KM4Dev) Marc Steinlin played an interesting game with us to deepen our understanding for all the different challenges that come from working in complex interrelated systems that we only understand halfway. A group of people moves around in a room, everybody silently picks two other people that he or she has to stay in equi-distance to all the time. Someone who doesn’t know the rules of the game observes the group and has to find out how everyone is connected. Maybe the outsider is allowed to move one person at a time to see what happens. Maybe they get the task of moving a specific person to a specific spot without touching that person. Marc describes the game and some of the ideas behind it in more detail (173 KB).

After doing it, I had a strong feeling of the strange dynamics and fragile balances and chance meetings and misunderstandings that we encountered. Now that I let it rest for a few weeks, I think the most interesting thing about it was to learn something very complex and abstract with my whole body. I’m sure the learning experience would have been completely different in a computer simulation or with pen and paper. I strongly remember the feeling of being pushed around physically (though no one touched each other) by the fact that I was linked to other people and they were linked to me.

But I still don’t fully understand, why I think this is so different or valuable in a different kind of way. Maybe it has something to do with using both your left and right half of the brain and with the fact that learning feels more complete when you approach it from different angles. And I think especially when we are not talking about learning individual facts but trying to understand (and get a feel for) what holds our social world together and how we can act in a fruitful way in this, it makes a difference to learn these things with your whole person and not just as snippets of knowledge in the “social network analysis” compartment of the “social scientist” file of your brain…

Do you know other network games? Ways of learning about networks that don’t just go through the intellect? I would really be interested in examples of people teaching children to think in network terms…

Confusing people for money

Sometimes, when people ask me what I do for a living, that’s my answer: “I confuse people for money.”

“Why would anyone do that, pay you to confuse them?” Well, because I don’t just deliver any old confusion that leaves you helpless and, well, confused, but I help to get you to the fruitful state of “confused but on a higher level”.

I have been thinking a lot about why I think confusion can be a good thing (and why most people think confusion is bad and should be avoided by all means in a professional setting). You are not confused when everything is in the place where it belongs, when you know what you have to do, to believe and to say. And a lot of people and organisations like this feeling of “everything in place” so much, that they won’t change anything, no matter how fast the world around them is moving and transforming. The more the world outside bombards you with new demands, the more important it is, to keep everything inside in the neat and usual order. 

However, what gives you stability for a while, can make you so immobile that in the end you break under the heavy load of changes, because you have developed no flexibility to adapt to them.

Confusion is the puzzled realization: “Maybe the world is completely different from how I thought it was. Maybe my organisation works in ways, that I don’t even start to understand. Did I have it completely wrong?” That’s a painful feeling. The more you like security, the longer you have believed one thing, the more painful this is. But once this confusion sets in and you admit that you might not know it all, you have opened the door to learning new things about the world that you cannot even foresee. It’s not the kind of learning that follows a set curriculum, where some teacher pours well known facts about the world into your brain. You opened the door. Now let’s see who comes in and what they bring.

Drawing network maps with groups is one way to do this, because most people have strong beliefs about how the social settings they work in are structured. You can feel the amount of agitation in a group rising when they realize that other people disagree and that they are basically not talking about hard facts but about perceptions. While arguing about individual links, everyone learns a lot of details about the actual flows within the network and that’s great. But I think for a lot of participants the change of perspective and the confusion that it leads to is the more productive power.

Does this make sense? Do you have examples of constructive confusion? If so, what do you do, to confuse people?

Martin Luther King about Power and Love

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. … What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”

Thanks to Marc Steinlin of IngeniousPeoplesKnowledge for pointing this quote out to me. When I work with groups or individuals on understanding who can drive change in their networks, I often feel that people shy away from the term “power” and much prefer talking about “influence” instead. I don’t mind what you call it (on the one hand), as long as we can talk about it… though (on the other hand) I feel that often it helps to call things by their proper names to be able to start an open dialog about things that really matter.