Strategic engagement – with snakes, elephants, baboons, mosquitos and meercats

smiling-baboonI am just back from work in Southern Africa. And while I was in a specific country with it’s specifically difficult political context, the question that keept us awake at night was rather universal: How can we influence without much formal authority? How can we achieve the greater good (as we define it, anyway), when doing so will cut off streams of illicit benefits for many people in high position?

Then I found a simple solution, fixed the situation and all is well, world saved.

No, not quite. Rather, I led my participants deeper into the complexity of their challenge (identifying who the actors are, how they are connected, what their influence and goals are, a.k.a. drawing a Net-Map stakeholder map). Then I provided them with guidance to prioritize and strategize for most effectively engaging with their stakeholders.

We divided the stakeholders in

  • Elephants: high influence, positive
  • Meercats: low influence, positive
  • Snakes: high influence, negative
  • Mosquitos: low influence, negative, and
  • Baboons on the fence: high influence, undecided

And for each, there are a number of strategies to explore:

Elephants: High influence, positive toward your goals


  • Give them credit, let them lead
  • Frame the issue for them, share information
  • Engage consistently, regularly
  • Manage possible power struggle between positive high influencers
  • Build diverse coalitions:
    • Diverse power sources,
    • diverse motivations,
    • shared goals.

Meercats: Low influence, positive toward your goals


  • Can you increase their influence?
  • They can be connectors and information gatherers
  • They might have helpful friends
  • Build coalitions – strength in numbers
  • Remember: “A leader without followers is just someone taking a walk”

And, don’t underestimate them: threat or belief can activate unexpected strength -see below, together they can kill a snake…


Snakes: High influence, negative toward your goal


  • Watch your back – protect yourself
  • Avoid – focus on other issues for now
  • Seek unexpected common ground
  • Explore their networks: Who do they listen to? Who commands them?
  • Explore win-win and trade-offs
  • Undermine their narratives
  • Weaken their coalitions



Mosquitos: Low influence, negative toward your goal


  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?



Baboons on the fence: High influence, undecided about your goal


  • What do they care about? Can you entice them to your side?
  • Are you sure they are weak?
  • Watch out for influence increase over time
  • Interfere with their coalition building
  • Can you safely ignore them for now?



By grouping our stakeholders according to their influence and their relationship to our goal, we became much more specific when developing engagement strategies. And calling our important stakeholders baboons or meercats also added a level of levity to the discussion that made us breathe more freely under the weight of our near impossible task. What are your strategies for engaging elephants, empowering meercats, swaying baboons, neutralizing snakes and protecting yourselves from mosquito bites? I am sure the above isn’t complete yet, so I am curious to hear from you.

Agricultural Extension in Ethiopia through a Gender and Governance Lens

women agriculture ethiopia

This paper uses Net-Map for qualitative data collection on the use of agricultural extension in Ethiopia, especially understanding the role of women (authors: Tewodaj Mogues, Marc J. Cohen, Regina Birner, Mamusha Lemma, Josee Randriamamonjy, Fanaye Tadesse and Zelekawork Paulos). Here the abstract:

“Drawing on a household survey collected in eight woredas in seven Ethiopian regions in 2009, as well as on qualitative fieldwork in four of the eight woredas, this paper provides analysis of agricultural extension delivery in Ethiopia. While overall extension services are relatively accessible in Ethiopia, there are differences in access between men and women, and particularly stark differences by region. Individual visits by public sector extension agents to household farms are by far the most common mode of extension delivery; alternative modes of extension (either in delivery method or type of service provider) play a rather limited role. Using the method widely applied in the “Citizen Report Card” approach, questions to farmers regarding satisfaction with services yielded near 100 percent reporting of satisfaction; however, the study also showed relatively low uptake of extension advice. This suggests the need to revisit or refine the Citizen Report Card method of eliciting satisfaction with services in this type of empirical context.

Women’s groups (e.g. the women’s associations at the kebele level in rural areas) may be a promising approach to reach women with extension services; in some of the study sites, they were able to successfully link extension agents with women farmers and circumvent the socially sensitive issue of (male) extension agents providing advice to women one-on-one. However, the use of women’s associations also for other matters, e.g. political mobilization of women, may weaken their promise in expanding access to extension services for women farmers.

Finally, making agricultural extension demand driven remains a challenge in Ethiopia. While there is strong political will to expand agricultural extension in Ethiopia, the strong standardisation of extension packages arising from a pronounced top-down nature of public service delivery makes it difficult to tailor agricultural extension to farmers’ needs. The incentives of extension agents are set in a way that they try to maximize farmers’ adoption of standardized packages. The packages have become less rigid in recent years, with a menu of options now available to farmers. However, even the more diversified menu cannot substitute for the microlevel adaptation, the process that would make new inputs and practices more credible to farmers, and which only extension workers and their farmers can feasibly manage.”

We have no conflict

Two weeks ago I was in a Net-Map session where one group insisted that they had no conflict likes to draw. The question they were working on revolved around the implementation of a complex government reform program, so my co-facilitator and I stepped back and started judging and strategizing: “Impossible that there are no conflicts. What do you think, is it maybe culturally difficult to admit? How can we call it instead? Disagreement? What can we do to make them more open or comfortable?” And we pushed some more and pulled some more.

Finally one of them broke it down to us: Look, we are working in silos, we never really interact, how could there be conflicts? Plus, the work hasn’t really left the ground yet…

For me that was a great lesson in listening instead of following our own frameworks. It’s so easy, especially when working under high pressure to see participants as “resisting” instead of questioning your own assumptions and framework…

Networks, gender and race in job-seeking in rural America (Missouri)

How do the networks of black and white, male and female job-seekers differ? And: Does that makes some of them more successful than others in finding a job? Jenine Harrison and her co-authors have interviewed job seekers in rural Missouri and drawn Net-Maps that indicate clearly which contacts are male/female, black/white to understand these questions better.

The abstract of their paper: Higher rates of unemployment are found among African-American men in rural communities in the US. As part of a community-based participatory research project, we sought to identify characteristics of job-seeking networks of African-American and white employed and unemployed men and women in a rural community in Missouri. We collected ross-sectional quantitative and qualitative information about job-seeking networks through in-depth interviews with 9 local residents. Descriptive network measures were used to compare the gender, race, and employment status of the people comprising participant job-seeking networks. A novel network approach was used to simulate a whole network from individual networks depicting likely patterns of job-seeking relationships across the community. Unemployed participants had larger networks, with the exception of white women. Men had more racially homogenous networks than women; many networks had no racial diversity. Men had longer relationships than women, while women had stronger relationships. Employed participants had more linkages to alters with connections to community organizations
than unemployed participants. Unemployed participants had many connections, but lacked connections to the right people and organizations to aid in their job search. Increasing employment opportunities in this community, and similar communities, will require effort from job-seekers and others to develop new relationships, programs, and policies.

For innovation: Amplify the low signal


Crow brings the daylight, by Ruth Meharg

My work often involves getting familiar with a new country and sector in a short amount of time, discussing challenges with many different stakeholders and together developing and implementing strategies for change.

One skill which is crucial for this is the ability to detect patterns quickly, understand what the common themes are, the issues, people, strategies and conflicts which are mentioned again and again. What is the shared story on which we can build our planning? What are the loudest and most consistent signals?

However, one great risk when listening for the common pattern is that you distill the story that everybody knows already and focus on the issues that everybody agrees are THE issues. If you want to help people discover new possibilities, experiment with new solutions, discover the positive deviants that exist already, you have to grow a third ear which listens for things that are only said in passing (or not at all), for ideas that people laugh about or don’t dare believe in, for challenges that cannot be discussed out in the open and sometimes you have to be the one who mentions that the emperor might have forgotten to get dressed…

But how do you know what is an interesting low signal and what is just plain noise?

I tend to pick up a number of different half-sentence ideas as I travel through the system and then I try them out when I talk to the next person. Many of the ideas don’t make it to the third or forth discussion but every once in a while, the next person says: “Well, I hadn’t thought about that but now that you say it…” and they start adding weight, color, texture and context to this idea.  And slowly a new door opens, a different approach emerges or we develop a clearer understanding of a long overlooked risk.

Amplifying a low signal is something I could never do alone, it is rather that I start bouncing these signals off other people and see if they disappear or become stronger.

How my bad French made me a better facilitator

Let Your Magic Happen

I recently went on a mission to Cameroon, where one of my tasks was to facilitate a workshop with about 100 participants. Cameroon is a bilingual country – but that doesn’t mean all Cameroonians are bilingual. It rather means, there are some regions that are predominately francophone (the majority) and some that are anglophone (the rest). And, in my experience, in a room full of 100 people from all over the country, you have maybe 5-10 who prefer speaking English… and who are very used to working in French. Then you have about 90-95 who prefer speaking French… and who understand English better than if you were in a purely francophone country – but who have a strong preference for working in French.

My French on the other hand… well… I understand most of what people say. And I can survive very well. What I cannot do in French is sound clever. Or express delicate matters delicately. Or explain complex processes clearly, so that everyone can easily follow. You’ve guessed it: What I cannot do in French is facilitate a participatory workshop with 100 participants.

How on earth did that make me a better facilitator, you wonder?

Well, a facilitator is someone who provides structure and processes and then gets out of the way to let the magic happen. In the case of Cameroon, like in a lot of my work, we are working with local facilitators who are there not just for the workshops during out field visits but to support the project throughout implementation.

My typical approach to a workshop like this would be to be the lead facilitator and have the local facilitators facilitate small group work and other less challenging, less complex and less visible work. During this workshop however I did not hold a microphone or say a public word even once. I had prepared very well with our local facilitators, we knew what the process was, then I handed over to them and spent the day listening, observing, preparing flip charts, handing out post-its, checking in with the facilitators, feeling the room, keeping eye contact and trying to get out of the way to let the magic happen.

All the while the local facilitators had space to show their value, get visibility, develop contacts and prepare for the implementation work which started once we left.

From this experience I gained two insights:

  • Running the show and dancing on stage might not be the best idea for a visiting mission – even if we know the language well. Because it can easily send the message: The international team consists of superheroes, flown in to save the day. The local team is just second-best – you have to bear with them until the superheroes come back.
  • You are more likely to learn, adapt and innovate in a situation of scarcity and constraints than in a situation of abundance: If everything I wanted had been there (e.g. my perfect command of French) I would have done things like I always do them, without a second thought.

How about you, how have your limitations led you to do your work better?

(image credit:

Case Study: Analyzing the political economy of the charcoal sector in Tanzania

Charcoal Trader (copyright by Klas Sander)

Charcoal Trader (copyright by Klas Sander)



Klas Sander (World BankClemens Gros (UNICEF) and Christian Peter (World Bank) used Net-Map in this study to get a structured and reliable understanding of how the charcoal sector works and what may be done to improve it. What they find especially exciting is how Net-Map has helped them take the stories and annecdotal knowledge about the issue and turn it into validated, more structured insights.


With about 95 percent of all households in urban areas relying on charcoal to meet energy needs, charcoal is one of the most important energy sources in Tanzania. High population growth rates coupled with accelerated urban development and relative cost increases of alternative fuels indicate that the importance of charcoal is unlikely to decline in the near future. Systemic initiatives to render the sector more environmentally and economically sustainable are missing or have remained largely ineffective. A weak formal governance framework as well as regulatory overlaps and gaps are often identified as principal reasons. Nonetheless, the underlying political economy supporting and maintaining the status quo is only poorly understood and no attempt has so far been made for a formal analysis and documentation.

Applying an established methodology, this article provides a unique analysis of the political economy of the charcoal sector in Tanzania. It documents social, political, and economic explanations that existed as anecdotal evidence only and explains why a reform dialogue needs to be sensitive. While the analysis focuses on Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, it shows that findings apply to other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa facing similar challenges. It provides a comprehensive example for approaching charcoal sector reforms, requiring identification of the problems and an open dialogue within and among stakeholders, new policies and a subsequent strategic decision clearly stating overarching goals and specific objectives.