By Duncan McNicholl, PhD candidate, Cambridge University

Understanding the complex stakeholder relationships that shape institutions and the development of social accountability in water service delivery can be challenging. The question is: how can the multiple relationships that influence institutions be understood to improve intervention strategies and ultimately improve water service delivery?

At the Europe and Central Asia (ECA) Regional Forum in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, I presented new research from Cambridge University, in collaboration with Oxfam, which seeks to answer these questions by studying factors influencing the Tajikistan water sector. Tajikistan was identified as a suitable case study because of recent successful efforts to approve a reform of the national water policy, and the development of the Tajikistan Water Supply and Sanitation (TajWSS) Network as a sector knowledge-sharing and coordination platform. These developments provided an opportunity to study factors supporting these changes and how they might be identified from a stakeholder network perspective.

Interviews with key stakeholders used a network mapping approach to identify relationships, and to capture perceptions of how these relationships support institutional development. Follow-up interviews with other stakeholders collected additional data to produce a sector network for analysis. Data on network relationships were analysed quantitatively, and descriptions from interviews were analysed qualitatively to identify important factors.

Network Factors Supporting Institutional Development

Multiple factors in the Tajikistan water sector stakeholder network were described by interview participants as important for supporting change in the sector, and these relationships can be observed from a network perspective. These characteristics are described as supporting the reform of a national water policy, the development of a national coordination and knowledge-sharing network, and the creation of local platforms for dialogue and problem solving. Each of these developments in the sector can be examined from a stakeholder network perspective.

  1. National policy reform – Collaboration between national-level stakeholders was identified as important for supporting policy reform. Network analysis helps to understand this characteristic in detail by identifying specifically who is involved in this collaboration, and how they are connected. Investigating the stakeholder network around the institution leading the policy reform finds that there is a diversity of stakeholder types that are described as contributing to the reform process, and that key stakeholders are coordinating with each other.
  2. Sector knowledge sharing – The TajWSS network is a national knowledge-sharing and coordination platform that connects stakeholders across the country and includes actors from national to local levels. Multiple stakeholders interviewed referenced the importance of this network, and network analysis can identify who is involved, and how they are related to each other. The network shows how these stakeholders are linked at the national level while also having relationships to stakeholders at local levels.
  3. Problem solving within districts – Amongst stakeholders within a district, the TajWSS network helps to connect users, Water User Associations, local governments, and the local private sectors. These relationships were described by interview participants as important for identifying and addressing challenges locally to improve water service delivery.

Applying Network Analysis

Some network characteristics identified in Tajikistan are similar to findings from other case studies in Ghana, Malawi, Bolivia, and India. Three common network characteristics were found in multiple case studies where water sector institutions are developing. The three common network characteristics supporting institutional development are:

  1. Relationships with stakeholders at higher levels of sector hierarchy that can provide information and technical support;
  2. Relationships with stakeholders at lower levels of sector hierarchy that can provide feedback and benefit from technical assistance; and
  3. Coordination between support providers at higher levels of sector hierarchy.

Considering these characteristics from a network perspective can be used to evaluate whether influences that support institutional development might be present or absent. A visual representation of these common network characteristics can be used to consider how network relationships might support institutional development.

These influences can be considered as a thought exercise, or network data can be captured directly through primary interviews. Practitioners can facilitate network mapping exercises with key stakeholders to capture network data for analysis. Data collection can be completed relatively quickly depending on the level of rigour required. Collecting data from all stakeholders in a sector can create a detailed sector network map, or interviewing only the stakeholders immediately around an institution can provide insight into stakeholder relationship dynamics in specific parts of a sector.

Experiences from Tajikistan and elsewhere suggest that network analysis has considerable potential to identify factors that support institutional development by identifying and interpreting influences among complex stakeholder relationships.

[above] Illustration of common network characteristics that can support institutional development (McNicholl et al., 2017)

Opportunities for Practitioners

Network analysis can be used to:

  1. Improve coordination by identifying stakeholders and their relationships;
  2. Develop strategies for strengthening relationships around specific institutions; and
  3. Monitor changes by comparing networks over time.

Please send your questions and comments to Duncan McNicholl at