Since May 2013, Mirko Hoff has been working at Interpeace’s West African regional office, located in Abidjan, one of the most densely populated cities in West Africa. A decade following the civil war, Abidjan is considered the Ivory Coast’s industrial center. Mirko’s responsibilities include supporting teams and initiatives that are working to establish peace in the region. Quite a while ago, he discovered bikablo visualization techniques and realized how these could be helpful in his work. We spoke with him about the ways in which sketchnoting and other techniques frequently assist him in his complex tasks.
bikablo: Mirko, what exactly is involved in the work you do for Interpeace’s West Africa regional office?
Mirko Hoff: Interpeace supports local and national efforts to establish peace as well as collaboration between various partners in the region. Along with the office in Abidjan, where I live, there are also West African collaborations with Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and Nigeria. Here, we work with different teams and initiatives that are working to promote peace in several of the country’s hotspots and to defuse local conflicts.
You refer to yourself as a “Learning and Policy Officer.” That sounds pretty abstract. What exactly does it mean?
I help facilitate the exchange of experiences in the region, support the team’s program development, and evaluate and document the impact of the various efforts. As an organization, we attempt to elevate regional and local issues to an international political level, so we can attract the attention we need to allow us to receive support from the EU and UNO for targeted peace policies and for our financial priorities.
You’ve been using visualization techniques in your work for quite a while now. How did that come about?
I had already been active as a trainer in Germany, and a colleague suggested that I make my training sessions more visual. She had had good experience with this. So, I did a little research and came across the Neuland website and the UZMO book. This was a valuable source of didactical information and it allowed me to take the first steps in teaching myself the basics. The feedback I got from the people I was working with was so positive that after a year and a half of experimentation, I took a bikablo training course.
How do you use visualization in your work?
Actually, in a number of very different ways. For one, we use it to help us reflect upon our work and our strategies. At our regular team meetings, we now always have a flipchart and a presenter’s kit available – the visualization we do at every meeting helps us to arrive at a much clearer mutual understanding of the issues and the results. But, visualization is also a great help when we are working our way into the different levels of politics.
How exactly did you do that?
Our work actually almost always touches on very specific national perspectives. It is often quite difficult to communicate these in a way that can be understood on the international stage. These perspectives are generally miles apart from the reality of the financial sponsors’ worlds. For this reason, we have made it a rule to translate our key messages into visual language. Often now, when we meet with financial sponsors or politicians, we will place a sketch on the table, on which we have illustrated our central understanding of the problem and our options for solutions. In the discussions that follow, almost everything revolves around this sketch. This has made it much easier for us to initiate programs that are purposefully targeted – and that therefore also have a greater impact.
Why do sketches convey your meaning better?
Our work is extremely multi-layered. When we are talking about social concepts, the discussion can quickly become academic and abstract. Visualization allows us to communicate what we’re talking about in a much more descriptive way. When problems can be clearly and unambiguously named, it makes it easier to discuss them with others and to establish project formats that are more sustainable.
How do these types of projects work?
They’re all quite different: for instance, we’ve initiated a local pilot project in Abobo, one of the poorest districts of Abidjan. The problem there was organized youth crime – we had gangs of youths who were robbing residents. The law enforcement authorities were virtually powerless and, because the residents had created self-defense teams, there were frequent clashes, some of which resulted in fatalities. Overall, it looked as though there was no solution to the problem, because neither side understood the reality of the other side’s world. There was almost no communication between the two sides. In a series of dialogues that took place over the course of several months, we were able to defuse the situation. Once our local project partners were able to gain the trust of the youths, we used video messaging to establish an “interactive” dialogue. In these types of dialogues, the differences in opinion can be extreme, and the use of film as a medium allowed for an exchange that led half of the youths in this project to distance themselves from their tendency to violence.
Do you also use visualization in these types of dialogues?
Yes, unfortunately though, we don’t have enough moderators who know the technique, so we can’t yet really implement visualization systematically. For a peace-related project in Mali, we tried to use visualization to document the results of a survey that had been taken of the population. What this revealed was that people viewed changing values and the lack of trust on the part of citizenery to be the greatest challenges to peace.
Why would it be helpful to have more of your moderators learn visualization techniques?
One of the most critical prerequisites for facilitators in a peace process is neutrality – along with credibility. When we guide and analyze dialogues, the goal is to be able to share the results with colleagues. If we are working with a Workspace group of between 20 and 200 people, we have to be sure that we have documented the problems correctly. We always provide visualization support for these types of Workspace presentations, and this has led to a major change in the way that we present problems. In our work with local discussion groups, visualized note-taking helps us to better understand the perspectives of all those affected – and to be able to come up with questions or to make problems less abstract. When visualization is used in a discussion group, the participants usually have more of a sense that they are valued. This is important to us, because this simultaneous visual note-taking strengthens the transparency and credibility of our work. That’s why, of course, it would be great if more of our colleagues were able to use this technique.
Where does the problem lie?
Unfortunately, at the moment, language barriers make our options for teaching colleagues how to use visualization quite limited. French-language bikablo training would be a first step – and, of course, having trainers who speak the language and can provide training for the people here. There would be a demand for this – the feedback we get about our “visualization work” is extremely positive.
What are your hopes for your work at Interpeace?
My ideal would be that we could teach people to place more value on open dialogue and to motivate themselves to action, so that both minor and more major conflicts could be resolved through dialogue rather than through violence.
Mirko, thank you so much for our conversation – I wish you much success in your work in Abidjan!