Building institutional and individual strategic capacity

That’s what David Pelletier (the researcher, not the figure skater) said at an Alive and Thrive meeting some days ago. That’s what needs to happen in developing countries, above and beyond efficient and effective implementation of individual development projects. And I just thought: Wow, some people have such a way with words. That’s exactly what you can do by drawing Net-Maps with people with decision making capacity. You don’t just “extract” their knowledge like a rotten tooth. But you sit down together to increase each others’ network understanding and in the process learn how to deal more strategically with complexity.

Another term that I learned in the meeting was: “Optimal ambiguity”

Perceptual Ambiguity: Old woman or young girl? (by W. E. Hill, 1915)

In planning we always insist that you have to be clear about your goals, but in our discussion we realized that for getting a strong and united advocacy coalition for a cause (or for convincing donors, the general public etc.) it might make sense to keep things optimally ambiguous to invite a broad coalition to join you. The only question is: Once it gets to actually doing it (whatever “it” is), how do you deal with the disappointment of those partners who understood something different, when you defined your blurry cause?

Monitoring network development through intervention

This is question a lot of people ask me: Can we show network changes over time? Can we find out, if we made a difference? Will we even be involved long enough to be able to make a difference in people’s networks? Well, while networks evolve over time and you rarely know what the networks will be like 10 years after your project left, I would say that developing networks is actually something where external projects can show a specific strength:

They are by design boundary spanners.

Most people and organizations who are long term members of the system maintain “mature” networks and one thing that networks tend to do as they mature is to become more and more homogeneous – you link up with people (or organizations) of you type, people of similar social standing, interests, ethnicity, age, occupation etc. The project that comes from outside brings all the links to the outside world with it. But also within the local context their interactions are often less constrained by routine and social norms. This is why making introductions and facilitating (adding content to) links between unlikely partners is one way how development projects can become engines of innovation.

A project that links informal businesses to the formal banking sector does exactly that. Because normally the informal business people would stick to their informal financing sources (informal lenders, family, contracting), while the banks would stick to their formal big clients. What happens, if an outside actor brings its status and backup capacity to bear to convince banks that it might be ok (or even profitable) to do business with female informal rice par-boilers? The radical changes in the women’s networks can move them from being contract par-boilers to being independent business women. Independent? Well, the case below is from a strongly Muslim context, so the women still have to rely on their male family members for most contact to the outside world.

Network with intervention

These pictures show a combination of the networks we gathered from women who had not participated in the project (network 1) and those who did (network 2). The color of the nodes is according to gender (pink: female, blue: male, gray: composite actor, male and female). The size of the dots indicate the height of the influence tower. In picture 1 the interview partner is “contract par-boiler” in picture 2 the interview partner is “par-boiler group”.

Annotated list of social network analysis software

My colleague Rick Davies has started a list of SNA software especially from the perspective of practitioners and consultants who want to use the software without spending a scholarly life of studying them first. Very interesting. With positive and negative aspects of different packages. If you know have experience to share, he’d appreciate comments. And even if you don’t, his website is definitely worth going to – if you have some time at your hand, because you are basically guaranteed to loose yourself for a while in the depth and scope of his knowledge documentation around monitoring and evaluation – with a network twist.