Facilitator Between The Worlds: Visualization Meets Peace Work

Since May 2013, Mirko Hoff has been working in Interpeace‛s Regional office for West Africa in Abidjan – one of West Africa‛s most densely populated cities.

After ten years of civil war, Abidjan still represents the industrial center of Côte d’Ivoire (aka Ivory Coast). Part of Mirko‛s job is to support teams and initiatives whose goal is to build peace in the region. Some time ago, Mirko discovered bikablo‛s visualization technique for his work.

We spoke with him about how sketchnoting & co. support his complex work.

Bikablo: Mirko, what is your job description at Interpeace?

Mirko: Interpeace supports local and national initiatives for building peace in cooperation with different partners within the region. Besides our work in Côte d’Ivoire, where I live, our office has cooperations in Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Liberia. We work with different teams and initiatives with diverse focal points in the country to foster peace building and mediate local conflicts.


Bikablo: You see yourself as a “Learning and Policy Officer”. That sounds very abstract. What does it mean exactly?

Mirko: I facilitate the exchange of experiences in the region, support program developments within our team and evaluate and document the different initiatives‛ impact. As an organization, we try to elevate regional and local problems to international political platforms, in order to raise the necessary attention at the EU and the UNO and gain their support for adapted peace policies and financing priorities.

Bikablo: You have been applying visualization techniques in your work for some time now. How come?

Mirko: I had been working as a trainer back in Germany and some of my colleagues advised me to enhance my trainings by using visual elements, as they had made very good experience with it. I did some research and stumbled across the UZMO book on neuland‛s website. The book is a very valuable resource on a didactical level and with its help I figured out the basics as a first step. As my colleagues‛ feedback was so positive, I decided to take a bikablo® training course after one and a half years of experimenting.

Bikablo: How do you use visualization for your work?

Mirko: In very different ways, really. On the one hand, we use it to reflect on our work and our strategies. We now have a flipchart and suitcase with facilitation material placed at all our regular team meetings. Through the use of visual facilitation, we have developed a much clearer common understanding of our challenges and results. And even when we try to influence on a political level, visualization supports us.

In the EXECUTIVE SUMMARY of a 2016 report by Interpeace, the visualization technique is used to illustrate the key insights resulting from the work with violent youth.

Bikablo: What does that mean?

Mirko: Most of the time, our work touches upon very specific national viewpoints. Very often it is not that easy to communicate this clearly on an international platform. Our local work is often miles away from the reality of our international donors. That’s why we made it a habit to transform our key messages into visual language. When we talk to donors or politicians nowadays, very often, there is a sketch on the table visualizing our understanding of the problem and possible solutions. Much of our conversations revolve around that sketch and it has become a lot easier to initiate meaningful programs that have a relevant goal – and have better impact.

Bikablo: Why do the sketches transport your key messages better?

Mirko: Our work is very multi-layered. When we talk about social concepts our language tends to become very academic and abstract. By means of visualization we succeed to communicate very vividly what it is all about. If the problems are framed clearly and unambiguously, it becomes easier to discuss them with our partners and donors and to develop more sustainable project formats.

Bikablo: How do these projects work?

Mirko: That varies. For example, we have initiated a local pilot project in Abobo, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Abidjan. The project was about organized crime conducted by youth – meaning teenage gangs who assault and rob residents. As the security authorities are relatively helpless, the residents form self-defense groups to protect themselves. This leads to many violent clashes between the youth and the residents with at times fatal endings. The problem seemed unsolvable, as no one understood the other‛s reality anymore. Practically no communication existed between the different parties. We were able to de-escalate the situation through a several month-long dialogue-process. After our local project partners were able to gain the teenagers‛ trust, we created an “virtual” dialogue via video messages. The opinions expressed throughout the dialogue process are at times very  much in opposition to each other, but we were able to establish an exchange via video. At the end, about half of the teenagers with whom we worked turned away from violence.

Example 1: Young people feel left alone by their family, school and community. They are missing orientation and guidance.

Example 2: In this situation of lack of orientation, religion can offer guidance. This can have a positive effect or, if the teachers abuse of their authority, a negative one.


Example 3: Possible result: At the far end of such a process, the use of violence can turn into a profession, even transcending state borders in its application.


Bikablo: Do you use visualization in these dialogue processes?

Mirko: Yes, even though we do not have enough dialogue facilitators who master the technique. Therefore, we cannot use the visualization systematically. At a peace project in Mali, we tried to document the results of a dialogue process by means of visualization. It turned out that the people saw an erosion of societal values and beliefs and the lack of trust between citizens and their armed forces as the biggest challenges hindering peace.


Bikablo: Why would it help you if more of your facilitators would learn a visualization technique?

Mirko: One of the most important conditions to be a facilitator in the context of peace work is our neutrality – and trustworthiness. When we facilitate and analyze dialogue processes, we also have to transmit the results to our colleagues and other participants. When we do this with discussion groups of 20 to 200 people, we need to make sure that we have captured the issues correctly. Nowadays, these presentations are always supported by visuals. This has considerably changed the way we give account of the issues.  Furthermore, in our work with local discussion groups the use of visual notes allows us to much better take into account to the perspectives of affected people,– we can formulate follow-up questions or display problems in a more concrete way. The participants of a discussion group in which we utilize visuals usually feel more appreciated by us. This is very important to us, as we strengthen our credibility and transparency through visual notes. So it would be great if more colleagues could use this technique.

Picture: A participant to a discussion group examines the results of graphic recording of the discussion.

Bikablo: Where is the problem?

Mirko: Due to the language barrier, there are unfortunately very limited possibilities to familiarize the colleagues with visualization. A French bikablo training would be a first step – and a French-speaking trainer of course, who can train people here. The demand exists and the feedback on our visualization work is very positive.

Bikablo: What do you wish for your work at Interpeace?

Mirko: In my ideal world, we can help people to value open dialogue more and to use it actively themselves, to solve small and large conflicts through dialogue without recurring to-violence.