Dealing with messy realities

After pre-testing Net-Map to apply it to Bolivian policy processes, one troubling learning experience followed me for some days.

Imagine a political system (and I am not necessarily talking about Bolivia here, because I have seen similar systems all over the world) where the power of different actors is determined by a mix of their formal position, their political links and leverage and (importantly) their personalities.

Then add a very rapid succession of office holders for all relevant positions, most of them not too experienced in the administrative field but with a background of social movements and NGOs, some of them being brilliant in mobilizing the masses for their support.

To make things even messier, imagine every office holder, even the technical and administrative staff, to maintain strong political positions, ranging from hard-core socialist through moderate market oriented reformer.

If you try to draw a map of this situation, it will be a snapshot in the very true sense of the word, because: “This Minister is a strong character and is friends with the Vice-President, however, he is only in office since 3 weeks, so we don’t know what will happen, this independent research institute could be very powerful, but the new leader is not linked to the political networks, this radical Vice Minister has great capacity of mobilizing people but low ability to implement policy, this position that is important for disbursement of money has seen 6 different office holders in the last 2 years, two of them were really good etc.”

So what do you do with a map where each actor could have three different influence ratings (according to formal, political and personal characteristics) and each position’s influence can change overnight with a change of office holder?

This is a question that I am still moving around in my head. My preliminary answer is: Be clear about the fact that this is just a snapshot. And use Net-Map mainly as a tool for structuring a discussion that can easily become far too complex to understand if not visualized. The map might propose some short-term strategies of how to interact with specific individuals who are involved. And you might be able to understand a bigger picture of how a very dynamic system with low institutionalization of power works.

But, even though I am always interested in methodological issues, the really crucial question is: If you are someone who wants to improve this system or to achieve your goals within this system, what can you do?

2 Responses

  1. You might also add into this power mix various ethnic groups that are represented (or not represented)inside a ministry, NGO, or in a policy or decision-making process.

  2. Dear Susan,
    It’s very interesting to see how ethnicity plays different roles in different parts of the world. When in Bolivia, I started a lot of my questions with: “Well, I know the situation in different African countries, where XY is the case… is it similar here?” In some ways Bolivia reminded me a lot of places like South Africa, because the difference between white and non-white was seen as strongly defining your chances in life. The picture of the indigenous ethnic diversity was less clear to me. On the one hand people said: “Oh, that doesn’t matter so much.” But then, when we discussed further they told me that this or that ethnic group was well known for always being in time or always being late. Oh, and there was that group that still suffered under certain forms of slavery regimes imposed upon them by other groups. This is all to say: Yes, ethnicity is an important aspect in understanding power and structures of society. If you were drawing a personalized net-map, you could use stickers of different colors for members of different ethnic groups. Then it becomes obvious immediately, which group is over- and under-represented…

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