The literal translation of this word is “with-feeling” (i.e. empathy) and that’s what my Bolivian colleagues and I discussed yesterday, when planning our focus group discussion¬†with poor people to find our more about the multiple dimensions of poverty. We are still in the process of deciding whether we’ll rather focus on the “logistical” aspect (as in: access to services) or whether we will brave into asking about more emotional aspects of beeing poor, such as the shame, stigma and fear. Can you ask a group of poor men or women that you meet for the first time about their shame and fears and what does it take from the facilitator?

One colleague told us, how she had to interview abused women and the interviews would regularly end with both of them crying – she felt like she was not being professional. Another colleague said that she just wouldn’t feel comfortable, asking people such personal questions and intruding in their lifes. We went on thinking about the right balance: If your interview partners don’t feel that you open your heart to them, they will feel like you are cold and not tell you anything of value. On the other hand, if you take their stories so personal that you can’t sleep at night, your job will eat you up and this will not necessarily turn you into a better researcher or facilitator.

How do professionals learn the right balance between empathy and professionalism? Psychotherapists are explicitly trained in this through their education. In our professions on the other hand I have the feeling people much prefer talking about methods than about soft skills and approach these issues with the attitude of: Either you are a natural – or not.

Sure, you can’t learn soft skills the way you would learn statistics, but I also think it is possible to conciously develop them. What would that need? Maybe a more reflective attitude to our daily practice, a mentor or peer-support approach, where you can openly talk about your confusion, frustration or pain and see how you can learn by trying out doing things differently next time.

How do you learn to keep the right balance between closeness and distance?

Jennifer Hauck asks: Who is actually `the community`?

When writing a contribution for a conference my colleague Eva Youkhana and I came across a number of authors who complain, that communities or target groups are usually homogenised. Villages are perceived to be entities, user groups, such as fishermen are grouped together based on their activities. During our research on rural water use and fisheries, we found indeed this homogenization process to be one of the main reasons why attempts to establish community based management fail. Ignoring the groups within the group does not only mean playing in the hands of those who are already strong, it can also mean increasing or even starting conflicts amongst users. However, many might argue that there is not always enough time to get to know the entire community. We believe that Net-Map can help to solve that problem in part. While it will certainly take some time to conduct interviews with people from different ends of the village, it is definitely worth the effort. In a yet relatively short time period it is possible to get an idea about the composition of the target group, its periphery, and kind of interactions, such as conflicts or reciprocities. Furthermore it provides an overview of actors that can or in fact have influence activities and those who only pretend. Thus Net-Map provides independent information to triangulate those derived from key informants, group discussions and other ways of community assessment.

What does it mean to be poor?

Being poor is more than just not having money. When I was a student, there were times, when I didn’t have money and had to count my Pfennige to see if I could buy myself some plain and basic food. But I was never a poor person in the way that “the poor” are poor.

Because, even though at that moment I didn’t have a lot of Deutschmark in my purse, I had access:

If I fell sick, the mandatory health insurance in Germany would take care of my doctor bills. I attended a university and enjoyed my (nearly) free access to higher education. If times got too bad (or I had wasted too much money on my last holiday) I could always approach my family for support. Had I fallen victim to a crime, the police would have helped me for free, my garbage was collected, my tap kept running and my lights burning for affordable charges. And there were plenty of student jobs around, to increase the Deutschmark-level on my account. Yes, that’s another thing I had access to, a bank account that allowed for some overdraft, without charging exorbitantly (I thought differently at the time, but if you compare my bank to one of those private money lenders in African countries…).

I’m in Bolivia for the Inter-American Development Bank at the moment, where I will be working with a group of consultants on how to use Net-Map to understand the multiple dimensions of poverty. We will look at poverty in terms of people’s access to basic services and I think in this context it will be important to look at the two dimensions of accessibility and quality. Even the poorest might have access to some kind of water, health services, law enforcement. But it is quite likely that the more accessible the worse the quality: dirty river water, an informal healer with little equipment or medicine and the law enforcement of your own fists…

Costs and Benefits of Networking

Today I had a discussion with colleagues at the International Resources Group here in Washington and they pointed out an interesting dilemma to me:

Yes, if you want to be strategic in your networking, it is important to realize who could be how influential in achieving your goal. But you also have to keep in mind how much it will cost you (not only in terms of money) to enlist these actors for your purpose. Because the more important an actor is (or feels) the more difficult it will become to access this actor. So you might use most of your scarce resources on trying to access one specific influential individual or organization that has the potential to really drive your case forward. But in case you don’t get there or don’t convince them, all your effort is wasted. Or you can take the “cheap” way and just work with easily accessible actors who have a limited reach into the networks you want to impress.

The balance between cost and benefits is obviously different in different projects and the ideal solution is most likely to be a mix of different types of actors. If you want to get to an informed strategic discussion with your team about it, it could make sense to set up the influence towers first (Who can influence how strongly whether we achieve our goals?), discuss about this, note down the height of towers, then clear the map and set up towers indicating the “cost of interaction” with these different actors. After this second round of tower building your team might come to different conclusions about how to network best for your cause.

Can kids net-map?

I don’t know. A colleague asked me the other day: Have you ever tried this out with kids? Honestly, I haven’t and in my current life situation, I am not surrounded by any children in a suitable age range to use as guinnea pigs. Though I would love to. And I am convinced that teaching network thinking and network tools is something that kids can benefit greatly from. So, I will approach this idea like most things that I want but don’t really know how to get to: I will think about it, keep wishing for an opportunity and discuss it with everyone who will listen…

Net-Map in Himalaya, Hidukush, Pamir

Those of you, who read German, can follow Melanie Mast und Bianca Herrlin, who report in their blog about their experience using Net-Map to understand mountain governance in China. If you don’t (read German), you can enjoy the pictures. I hope to encourage the participants of the ASA Program to contribute to this blog, once they have gathered their data and feel confident to report on their experience…

Make sure you know what they mean by this…

Today I tried to make sense of Net-Maps that workshop participants drew some weeks back in individual silent sessions. We had discussed the procedure, the general question, kinds of links, meaning of influence with the group, but mapping the networks was something that each participant did on their own. During the workshop we used the maps as a sketch and background for a lively discussion and I had the feeling that everybody had learned a lot and structured their knowledge of their field of work in a way that helped them to be more strategic about their networks.

But why did the network I looked at and tried to enter into Visualyzer (the program I use) today make no sense to me? I think I learned something about rushing (or not rushing) facilitation today. About the fact that the same word can mean very different things to different people. And that people who learn something are sometimes not in the position to judge whether they understood you correctly, because they don’t know yet, what it would look like, this correct understanding (I mean, that’s what misunderstandings are all about, you’re absolutely sure you’ve got it, but you’re off target by a mile and a half).

I discussed this with my colleague Noora Aberman, who is a tango teacher besides being an IFPRI researcher and we agreed: You can show your students a Boleo (a fancy tango way for the lady of throwing her leg in the air) and ask them: “So, you know a Boleo now?” They might nod in astonishment, but before they have tried it out AND you have checked it, they won’t be able to know whether they know it.

I take this as a reminder for myself but also as a warning for other users of participatory methods: Slow does it. Far too often we rush through a densely packed workshop day in the hope of maybe somehow squeezing everything in… But if we don’t make sure that we are all on the same page, if we’re not mindful of the different paces, perceptions and ideas of the talkative and the silent participants, if we think we don’t have the time to ask: “What do you mean by this?” then we might be wasting our precious time altogether.

Who stops women?

Do you also have a hundred projects in the back of your mind that you would love to do and in the end only time and resources for about 5 or so? Ok, here is another one that I would find really interesting but at the moment neither have the time nor the funding to do. So please, pick up the idea and do it, if you want to (but please tell me, if you did and share what you found out…).

When living in northern Ghana I met some very successful women, both in business and in local politics. And then I met a lot of women who were just scraping by and seemed rather disempowered in the communities they lived in.  I would like to know a number of things.

Before I even go further, I would like to know: Is my perception of a “powerful woman” or a “successful woman” the same as what local people would perceive as successful or powerful? After assessing that, I would want to find out: Why do some women make it, while others don’t. I know, it has a lot to do with individual factors (personality, education etc.) but I am also convinced that in these highly connected societies the networks of these ladies had a lot to do with their ability to achieve what they did.

So if they could draw me a network telling me: Who were all your supporters to get where you are? Who were those who tried to stop or slow you down? How are they linked? How influential were/are they in terms of your success? What were their motivations? What were crucial bottlenecks, turning points, threats?

Wouldn’t that give us an exciting whole new understanding of the role of women in these societies (Ghana is just one example…)? Wouldn’t it be inspiring for everyone who wants to facilitate that more women can actually make it? Wouldn’t it be a great way of avoiding a lot of the misunderstandings that come with good intentions but lack of understanding of the inner logic of the social system?