Mapping the Big Picture

People gathered around a table using the Net-Map influence mapping tool

SOCIAL NETWORK: Net-Map is a low-tech way to represent power relationships.

Analyzing pathways of influence can illuminate policy processes and problems

In 2007, the threat of avian influenza provoked an international scare. The Ghanaian government as well as the international community feared that if the disease were to spread among humans, it could spur a public health crisis and devastate local economies. Ghana’s government had established a program to compensate farmers if their sick birds had to be killed, but was it adequate to avert a potential pandemic?

As it happened, former IFPRI Postdoctoral Fellow Eva Schiffer had developed a tool, known as Net-Map, to explain influence, goals, and relationships among stakeholders involved in decisionmaking processes. Created to study collective water management, Net-Map was now applied to Ghana’s disease-reporting arrangements.

Using the tool, Schiffer and fellow IFPRI researchers pinpointed a skewed incentive structure. Ghana had set up a system that compensated farmers for each sick bird that was reported, confirmed, and then culled by the government. Farmers thus had strong motivation to report cases to officials immediately. Bird traders, however, were not compensated at all. For them, sick birds meant lost income—incentivizing them to quickly sell the birds to unknowing consumers in neighboring countries. This pattern would help spread avian influenza regionally and make tracking the disease a near impossibility. Through Net-Mapping, participants were able to uncover this procedural gap that carried the potential to ignite an epidemic.

Where Influence Lies

Net-Map works like this: researchers apply on-the-ground knowledge and higher-level research to identify and bring together key people involved in a decisionmaking process. The researchers pose a set of precise questions to the group and, collaboratively, draw a network diagram, using paper, pens, sticky notes, and game pieces, such as checkers. The participants describe directional links between actors (funding, advice, conflict, and formal hierarchy), signified by arrows, as well as magnitudes of influence, represented by different-sized stacks of game pieces.

Participants develop an understanding of their social system through debate: “Whatever people agree on in terms of who is powerful, that is where power lies,” says Schiffer, now at the World Bank Institute. After the group establishes linkages and influence, they collectively identify the end goals and motivations of the actors—for example, economic development versus environmental preservation.

Because it’s low-tech and low-cost, Net-Map is highly adaptable. “No matter where you come from, you can use it,” says Schiffer. “We used it with African women in a village even though we didn’t speak the same language and they couldn’t read or write.” IFPRI researchers recently applied the tool to study water management in Pakistan and the development of national fertilizer policies in Malawi and Nigeria.

Pen and Paper

In a technology-driven world, why do pen and paper prevail over more sophisticated means of social network analysis? Schiffer explained, “The tool is important because it engages participants. If you have something visual, you see the gaps in the big picture. The most important part of Net-Mapping is the discussion, the qualitative data—and that is facilitated by drawing together.”
Net-Map’s comparative advantage lies in its ability to reveal what government documents and high-level papers don’t: informal relationships and actual channels of power. According to Noora-Lisa Aberman, an IFPRI senior program analyst who has used the tool in a number of studies, “Net-Map gets at the intangibles of stakeholder engagement and policy impact.”

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