Pivoting from development to humanitarian aid

When the locusts descend or a deadly contagious disease like Ebola or the Coronavirus hit a country, everyone and everything is somehow affected. The impact on the farmers or those infected is immediate and obvious, but, like a tidal wave, the shock ripples far beyond where the problem is most visible.

Development organizations that focus on developing sustainable and self-reliant communities, often have a long term vision: Don’t give someone a fish but teach them how to fish. Which is a great philosophy to hold on to in stable(ish) times, but when these shocks hit that are bigger than one person, much bigger than one community, an insistence on remaining slow and steady would be an insistence on looking away while people die.

But how, in the bureaucratic realities that characterize international development, do you shift your approach, or add a humanitarian dimension at the speed necessary and while remaining accountable and strategic?

I recently talked with a colleague at USAID about using Process Net-Map to better understand the process from early warning to decision making around a crisis modifier to getting the needed help to people on the ground. How does information flow from the field staff of implementing partners, to their decision makers, to the donor agency? Who carries the decision making process through the agency an how? And finally, once the decision is made, who needs to work hand in hand to get commodities to the people who need them?

Process Net-Map allows participants to map a process like this not as a simple flow chart, but in the messy complexity it really takes, where a whole network of actors is involved, often more than once, the formal bureaucratic process is supported (or not?) by more informal connections of trust, information flow or conflict and there may be systematic bottlenecks in the system that can only be identified and remedied once you see it all laid out in front of you. And in a process that has a number of distinct parts to it, you can clearly identify the influencers for each one:

  • Who influences that the warning signs about the crisis reach the relevant decision makers?
  • Who influences that the decision to modify the support is made?
  • Who influences that humanitarian support reaches those in need swiftly?

If all those involved in the process sit at the table, one thing this mapping can do, is open up the black box. So when I hand over my information to another actor or organization, and all I know is “and then we wait” – I can understand what happens as I wait for a decision, and how I may support those making the decision through the information I give them. Because it is one common characteristic of these complex, multi-actor processes that everyone knows a lot about the things that happen close to them, and has a fuzzy knowledge at best, about those that happen further away.

 

How to get strategic insights from Net-Map

Just a bowl of spaghetti with toys on top?

So, you have done the mapping, in front of you a messy bowl-of-spaghetti-with-toys-on-top-diagram and your participants or clients ask you:

 

So what do we do now? What does this mean?

While the content of the answer will be different in every case, here are some guiding principle to direct your eyes and your thought when looking for strategic insights from a Net-Map: In general three issues are considered: Actor Influence, Goals and Connections, with the following lines of thought:

Influence

  • Influential actors who can harm / support
  • Increasing or decreasing actor influence
  • Diverse sources of influence

Goals

  •  Understanding reasons / motivations / fears / aspirations behind goals
  • Working with, connecting, strengthening positive actors
  • Dealing with, mitigating risk concerning negative actors
  • Changing actor goals toward more positive

Connections

  • Network patterns and their effects (e.g. centralization vs. decentralization, boundary spanners, disconnected silos)
  • Tension or reinforcement of formal vs. informal links
  • Connections which create destructive forces in the system
  • Missing links
  • Connecting positive actors (coalition), understanding negative coalitions, engaging mixed actors
  • Dividing negative actors

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:

Abstract:
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.

Become an expert Net-Map facilitator: Next training in DC June 27-28

influence towers from sideWe are are planning 2 Net-Map workshops in Washington DC this year. There are some more workshops planned in other parts of the world (e.g. Kenya in May)– so stay tuned. And, if you are interested in a workshop catered to your organization and at your location, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

The next workshop in DC is scheduled for June 27-28. So please mark the dates. This is a two day workshop in which you learn the basics of how to use Net-Map to improve your ability to understand and navigate personal and professional networks. The workshop will have a strong focus on learning-by-doing and you will be able to bring your own questions and map them out.

The location is George Washington University. Please sign up here

Do your networks own you – or do you own them?

Image

Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear (Polar Bear Family and Me by Gordan Buchanan)

Does the bear eat you or do you eat the bear?

Coming back from the largest meeting of social network analysts, the Sunbelt Conference of the International Network of Social Network Analysis (INSNA) I realize that my approach to this question might be different from the mainstream in the field. Most researchers who are interested in social networks will ask a variation of the following questions:

  • How does the network you are embedded in determine what you get (depending on research interest the “what” can be as diverse as “money”, “weight gain” and “HIV/AIDS”)? Or:
  • How is your network determined by who you are (looking at the network differences between men and women, rich and poor, sick and healthy, new and old staff etc.)

I guess, that’s what most researchers do, looking at how one thing is determined by something else. I am much more interested in the practical and proactive question:

  • Once you understand your network, what can you do about it?

Network researchers make a compelling case (backed up with a lot of evidence) that network structures do indeed influence what you can achieve or what risks will come your way. And it is obvious that different people have networks are structured differently. But wouldn’t it be great to get a better understanding of what individuals and groups can (and cannot) do to improve their network structure and content to be happier, achieve more of what they want, get out of painful, limiting and dysfunctional network relations?

Have you been able to change your networks? Why did you do it and how? What was difficult? What was easy? Did it change what you can give and get? I’d love to hear from you.

And if you want to find out what happens to the man in the glass box as he is visited by a hungry ice bear (picture above), you will find an amazing video here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/01/04/polar-bear-arctic-gordon-buchanan_n_2410791.html

5 ways how drawing helps you think better

5 ways visual thinking complete

In the past year I have taken a deep dive into visual thinking and finally, seven years after developing Net-Map in the hot, dusty North of Ghana, I understood why it leads to the insights and transformations it facilitates. And that is because there is something special about visualizing what you know – as compared to merely saying or writing it down.

So how – and why – is drawing different from using words alone to work through problems?

1. When drawing, you work with all you have

5 ways visual thinking heart

This means: you answer your questions not only with your rational brain, but ad what your heart and hands have to say as well. This allows you to tap into your intuitive and tacit knowledge in a way that is difficult to reach with words alone. Often the greatest insights happen when teams look at the network picture afterward and realize they drew things they didn’t even know they knew.

2.  Drawing helps you see the forest and the trees

5 ways visual thinking trees

When you use words to talk about an issue you normally have to choose the level of detail at which you want to describe it. Looking at a picture you can step back and come closer in a second, taking in both, the forest and the trees. When dealing with complex, multistakeholder issues, it is important to be able to see the detail (What does this mean for one of my stakeholders?) and the big picture (What are the larger, political implications?).

3.  Words are sequential, pictures can show everything at once

5 ways visual thinking big picture

When you use words you start with the first sentence, then the next and the next, one after another. While this has the benefit of clearly guiding your listener through the story, this linear way of looking at a problem can keep you from seeing the big picture. And, because you cannot see everything at once, you won’t see larger patterns or connections that are not obvious. This is what a picture allows you to do.

4. Drawing and sharing pictures helps you clarify

5 ways visual thinking clarify

When drawing it is much more difficult to get lost in buzz words. When our teams struggle to agree on how the arrows flow between actors on their Net-Map, they are forced to be specific and explicit. In the process, they often unearth areas of confusion or disagreement.

5.  Drawing helps groups think together out of the box

 5 ways visual thinking outside box

When we do things the way we always do them (e.g. writing a plan) we tend to think what we always think. Our brain is happy to follow the routine and produce the same old and familiar solutions. As we start doing things differently (e.g. drawing a network instead of writing a list) we start discovering new ideas and solutions together.

If you want to learn more about the power of visual thinking, Dan Roam’s book “Blahblahblah, What to do when words don’t work” is a great introduction. And if you are convinced you cannot draw, this explanation to  drawing a stick figure can get you started.

The gift of doubt

https://i1.wp.com/www.ias.edu/files/images/Hirschman-byChristaLachenmaier-lg.png

Albert O. Hirschman

When reviewing my colleagues’ experience in improving the water and sewerage system in Baghdad, using the Outcome Mapping method, I realized one thing: The really big learnings, changes, breakthroughs happened when something went wrong, when people made mistakes, not when everyone was doing things perfectly. For example only the bad reactions of the public to initial newspaper articles made the team understand that they had to listen more than preach. If the initial communication had been o.k. – though not great – and no one would have even noticed or complained, there would have been little learning.

Today I read an inspiring article which shows me that aparently I am not the first to see this – the literary economist (who prefered to quote Kafka to doing math) Albert O. Hirschman made a science out of researching this. His biography is out, and this New Yorker article gives you a first flavor:

“Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be.”

“Developing countries required more than capital. They needed practice in making difficult economic decisions. Economic progress was the product of successful habits—and there is no better teacher, Hirschman felt, than a little adversity. He would rather encourage settlers and entrepreneurs at the grass-roots level—and make them learn how to cope with those impediments themselves—than run the risk that aid might infantilize its recipient.”

Ghost stakeholders

ghostbuster-logoGhost stakeholders are those stakeholders who are not really on the net-map, but who were mentioned in interviews or informal talk as having a great influence on the mapped actors, yet are too embarassing to be mentioned during the net-map exercise. Mistresses, wives, children, siblings, same party members, business partners and close friends, may not have an official role in the project, yet they systematically condition the choices of the “official” actors. For example, in a bilateral cooperation project I was working in – in Burundi – the Art School received special attention compared to the other targeted schools because the project manager’s wife was an art teacher when they were living Europe. Similarly, trainees will not accept contributing a share of their per diem to a common fund which would reinforced the long term sustainability of their project because their wives had already made plans on how to spend the relatively conspicuous allowance. And their friends too were aware that each day of training is worth X.000 in local currency, so they felt socially compelled – more or less overtly – to pay them a beer. Next time you run a net-map, have a close look around your actors: you may find some traces of ectoplasm slime…

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What’s more important? People or structures?

If you look at any great change, in your organization, in history, and you ask people to describe who this happened, most likely you will get one of these two stories:

Story 1.

It’s all about the people: There was this inspired leader, or evil man, or group of passionate individuals, or conspirators, or clever people, who came up with this grand idea who made all of this happen. If you wanted it to happen again, you would have to find the right people again and that’s the only way it would work. This would be an inspirational story (or a gruesome one, if the leader was an evil one) about the power of one but it would also leave you a bit at a loss in the question of how you learn from this for another similar situation.

Story 2.

It’s all about the structure: The time was right, there was a new law, technical invention, financial incentive, change in weather pattern, means of transportation, political system and all of a sudden, people (like sheep) had no choice but to change how they were doing things, it only made sense. The story sounds logical and convincing, enchantingly simple. It holds the promise that, if you want to replicate it, you just have to change the structure in the same way and everything will fall into place.

But have you ever wondered: Which one, now, is the true story? How come the same event can be told in these very different ways? Or do you hear the stories and it’s very easy for you to decide which one is a true account of what happened? If you know exactly which one is the true story, that might make you feel very clever. But beware, being very sure of something is often not a sign of high intelligence but rather of strong bias. You will get much closer to the truth if you don’t just enjoy this feeling of “I’m so clever” but rather explore your bias a bit further and see what other people (with other biases) have to say. The fact that both, the people and the structure story sound so convincing to so many people, can either mean: Half of the people are clever (obviously, the ones who share my view), the other half is stupid. Or it means: Both stories are true. If you combine thinking about people and structures you will gain a far deeper insight into what actually happened. And you double your options for changing the world. Because depending on what your levers are, you can work on both, putting the right people in place, connecting and enthusing them AND changing the structures in which they operate.

When we draw Net-Maps and discuss them, we often jump between talking about individual agency and talking about structure. The network connections (e.g. flows of money, hierarchy, friendships, conflict) tell you a lot about the structure and by mapping out the whole system you can get some insights about incentives and patterns that you would’t see by just talking about inspirational leadership. But when we discuss how influential individual actors are (influence towers) and explore what their goals and specific connections in the network are, and how they use them, we often talk very concretely about the way that individuals lead, disturb, interact, build trust, follow a vision etc. Bringing groups who work together around the table to discuss people and structures can have amazing effects. Because typically group members would either lean toward story 1  or story 2. Opening up to the idea that both stories are true and valuable can bring teams closer together and help them develop far more powerful strategies.

A knife, a ball, a piece of paper

These are a few of my favorite things… (O.k., I also like raindrops on roses, as in the song, but that’s a different story…)

Because when I want to do stuff, a knife, a ball and a piece of paper are perfect. “Why?” you wonder. And even more confusing: “What kind of stuff is she planning to do? Do we have to be scared???” My answer is: “Anything!” And that’s why I like them, because these are the kinds of things that you can do about anything with. I love cooking and do a lot of it. That’s why it drives me crazy when people try to convince me that I need all kind of specialized gadgetery: Egg boiler, rice cooker, bread baker, lemon zester, asparagus pot… No I don’t. I need a good knife, a cutting board, two pots, a good pan. Now let’s get cooking, I’m hungry.

Knife Sharpeners in Kashgar, China (copyright by watchsmart on Flickr)

A ball? Well, the anthropologist John Fox has written a whole book about it (The Ball: Discovering the object of the game) and in this entertaining interview on NPR he explains how the mix of predictability and unpredictability and the fact that you can play so many different games with a ball, has made playing ball an important past-time from rather brutal ballgames of the Aztecs to Soccer World Cups of today.

A piece of paper? I don’t even have to do there, do I? You can write ANYTHING on a piece of paper, no limitations, or draw something, keep a table from wobbling, start a fire, even crumble it up and use it as a ball.

Now, where do all these thoughts come from? I recently attended a summer clinic of the World Bank Institute’sGreater than Leadership” program. They showed us a 5 day training course for civil servants around the world that aims at making them more effective leaders and making their reform efforts more successful. And while I was sitting their listening, discussing, giving feedback on tools, concepts and methodologies, I realized: The tools I find most useful are those that work like a knife, a ball, a piece of paper. And I guess that’s why I’m still hooked on Social Network Analysis – because it’s not a rice cooker or banana slicer, specialized for just one situation. But any situation where you have many different actors (individuals, groups, organizations), who are somehow connected (formal, informal, flow of goods or money, friendship or hatered…), Social Network Analysis can tell you something interesting about the situation and give you insights in the system dynamics which you would have missed without…