The Power of Marrying Facilitation and Sector Expertise

Last week I talked with my colleagues from the IFCSumit Manchanda and Anja Robakowski-Van Stralen, and Amit Nag (Net-Map facilitator) who have used Net-Map to facilitate their political economy analysis in setting up Public Private Dialogues in developing countries. These are high level platforms, facilitating regular meetings and results oriented dialogues between public and private sectors actors. They help countries improve their business climate and government-private sector relations.

In our conversation we tried to distill the lessons learned from this experience and one thing really stood out: The power of bringing together technical expertise and good Net-Map facilitation skills. This doesn’t mean that a Net-Mapper has to be expert in each field they work in. Or that a technical expert is necessarily best placed to be the Net-Map facilitator. But if neither is the case, then bringing your technical colleague (ideally steeped in local knowledge too) into the room as co-facilitator or observer lifts your work to the next level. Because you, the Net-Mapper can bring out structural issues that have never been talked about before. You allow the group to look at complex pictures, seeing the trees and the forest at the same time.

The technical sector expert can then ask the questions they were never able to pinpoint, dig deeper, call out half-truths or omissions that the group might want to slip by you, remind the group of the history of the issue, nudge them to open up about conflicts and, most importantly, help you and the group figure out the meaning of what you see and what to do next.

Also, if the technical expert also happens to be your client, they will learn so much more and get so much more excited, when sitting at the table as the Net-Map is happening than by reading your report, which you had to condense, streamline and probably sanitize to fit public scrutiny and protect individuals. And they can take the insights from the mapping session right into the decisions they have to take about moving forward.

I am sure that even without ever being in a Net-Map session, you can share some experience about the tension or marriage (or marriage with tension?) between sector expertise and facilitation skills… What has been your experience with:

  • Facilitating processes without being a sector expert?
  • “Being facilitated” by a person who wasn’t an expert in your field?
  • Working in a Facilitator – Sector Expert team to facilitate difficult conversations?


(picture credit:


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.”

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.

Public Policy and the Idea of the Vietnamese State: The Cultural Political Economy of Domestic Water Supply

A Net-Map study on formal and informal water governance in Vietnam, by Nadine Reis and Peter P. Molinga:

Using Rural Water Supply (RWS) policy practices as a case study,this article shows that the disjunction between implementation as formally conceived and informally practised is not a question of ineffective policy cycle dynamics, but rather an inherent feature of Vietnam’s Cultural Political Economy. Drawing on critical realist approaches to social and state theory, we argue that formal and informal RWS policy practices, as a set of two interconnected spheres, serve as key, separate but connected, mechanisms for reproducing the distribution of material resources (primarily through the informal sphere) and the hegemony of ideas (primarily through the formal sphere) in Vietnamese society. We conclude that the formal, administrative practices of RWS policy are primarily to be understood in their function of reproducing the idea of the state and state legitimacy. RWS administrative practices function to sustain the core social and political order in Vietnam as institutionalised in “the state”, rather than being primarily oriented to improving rural water supply. The findings raise questions for donor-supported programs that focus on formal administrative institutions and practices for improving the performance of the water sector.

Net-Mapping the Water-Food-Energy Nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia

When dealing with the challenges of a country like Ethiopia, focusing just on water, or food, or energy is a tall order already. Given how one influences the other, it is, however, not focus which is needed but integration – of issues and also of those people dealing with them. My colleague Christian Stein shared his research on the issue with me. Below is the summary and here is the full paper he wrote, together with Jennie Barron, Likimyelesh Nigussie, Birhanu Gedif, Tadesse Amsalu and Simon Langan for the International Water Management Institute:

Ethiopia is currently undergoing rapid development, heavily reliant on its natural resources such as water and land. The government’s Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) and its Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy set ambitious targets in a variety of sectors including water, food and energy. In order to avoid trade-offs and create synergies between different development agendas, integrated planning and cross-sectorial coordination is crucial. The so-called ‘nexus approach’ is a recent way to frame the interconnected challenges in water, food and energy with the ambition to align policies for sustainable development.

This study fills a gap in the nexus debate by focusing on concrete actors and the nexus challenges they struggle with, instead of on abstract systems and the resource flows between sectors. Based on participatory, visual network mapping and focus group discussions, the paper illustrates three interdependent challenges of the water-energy-food nexus in the Upper Blue Nile in Ethiopia. First, it points to the central role of biomass-based energy resources and the need to balance national ambitions for hydropower and immediate energy needs for rural communities. Second, it identifies agricultural water management as a critical issue where linkages across sectors and scales need to be improved. Third, it highlights the need to strengthen actors working on environmental sustainability issues, and generating political support for their objectives, by making available evidence on the value of nature for development.

The findings of this scoping study show that participatory network research can facilitate dialogue and colearning among researchers and a range of actors on the interconnected challenges of the water-energy-food nexus. Such collaborative learning processes can play an important role in moving toward better coordination between key actors and improved development planning within the Upper Blue Nile.”

Involuntarily airborne dog explains complexity

In a recent discussion on the marvelous Knowledge Management for Development email list, Ueli Scheuermeier recounted this great explanation of the difference between complicated and complex, which he had first heard from Irving Borwick:

“If you put a football on the penalty point and then have a guy kick it towards the goal, that is a complicated process whereby through the application of knowledge of physics etc. you can actually predict the trajectory of the football. But there are many variables that make it a rather complicated data-collection and calculation. But it’s still complicated not complex.
If, however, you put a dog there on the penalty point and a guy comes along and kicks it, you can never predict what will happen next. All you know is the general environment and the framework in which something will happen, but what exactly will happen you don’t know. That’s complexity. It usually comes up when living people (in this case an animal) and their decisions and reactions are involved and influence an outcome. When humans are involved, outcomes are never predictable. That’s complexity”.

Oh the sheer beauty of networks…

I could spend days surfing the 777 different projects that the visualcomplexity project has gathered, some of them amaze me because of what they are about, more of them just because they are so beautiful. Some examples, just to get you started

Nike city runs NYC

“Nike+ involves the placement of a sensor underneath the foot bed of your Nike running shoe in order to collect data about where you’ve run, how long it took and where you can improve over time – since each individual run becomes part of a collective historical database. Even though Nike+ website already gives individual users a variety of features to make sense of their personal data, the collective analysis of this growing database is remarkably promising.

The interactive collective YesYesNo developed an installation for Nike’s retail stores to visualize a year’s worth of runs uploaded to the Nike+ website. With custom software, the installation plays back runs throughout three cities: New York, London and Tokyo. The runs showed tens of thousands of peoples’ runs animating the city and bringing it to life. The software visualizes and follows individual runs, as well as showing the collective energy of all the runners, defining the city by the constantly changing paths of the people running in it.”

Visualizing Databases Stanford
“Using the visualization tool Gephi, Elijah Meeks has produced a series of experiments depicting databases in diverse styles. The images show here are mapping the top contributors to the Catalogue of Life and their associated species, references and databases.

As Elijah states: “While it could be argued that all databases can be devolved into graph databases, and as such all databases are graphs and therefore networks in the most pure sense, I think that there’s something more practical at play here: the importance of network visualization for database aesthetics. Summaries and statistics drawn from within the structure of the database are not enough. If there is to be any real grappling with the database as an culturally-embedded construct, then it has to be done in a manner that reveals the data, the model and the population simultaneously.”

Stephanie Posavec Writing without words Kerouac
“Writing Without Words, by Stephanie Posavec is a series of striking visualizations exploring the differences in writing style between authors of various modern classics. The images shown here are a visualization of Part One from the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. In this piece, entitled Literary Organism, each literary component was divided hierarchically into even smaller parts – Part, Chapters, Paragraphs, Sentences, and ultimately Words, the smallest branch in the diagram. Stephanie also created different colors to distinguish the eleven thematic categories she created for the entirety of On the Road. Some categories include: Social Events & Interaction, Travel, Work & Survival, and Character Sketches, among others.

This is how NOTCOT describes Stephanie’s work:”The maps visually represent the rhythm and structure of Kerouac’s literary space, creating works that are not only gorgeous from the point of view of graphic design, but also exhibit scientific rigor and precision in their formulation: meticulous scouring the surface of the text, highlighting and noting sentence length, prosody and themes, Posavec’s approach to the text is not unlike that of a surveyor. And similarly, the act is near reverential in its approach and the results are stunning graphical displays of the nature of the subject. The literary organism, rhythm textures and sentence drawings are truly gorgeous pieces.”