“The score never interested me, only the game.”  Mae West

Playing happy strategies (Photo: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

Playing happy strategies (Photo: Ewen Le Borgne/ILRI)

There is nothing as practical as a good theory. And there is nothing as strategic as a game one might say, judging from the interest that the ‘happy strategies’ game generates among serious researchers. Not surprising perhaps, since the game holds a lot of value to understand the strategic issues behind effective land and water management. And it does so in a playful way.

During the Share Fair organized around the International Forum for Water and Food, the ‘happy strategies’ game was introduced to a group of about 20 participants. In the two-hour session, the participants learned all about the process of the game: First, the group discovers the imaginary site where the action of the game is taking place (through its altitude, slope, rainfall etc.). Second, all participants around the table receive (rainwater management) practice cards indicating the purpose and suitability of that practice for different types of landscapes.

Then the game starts. The basic idea of the game is two-fold:

a)      You can achieve a whole lot more with a group than alone – in practice in the game the participants around the table are working as one team. They have to develop a set of practices and interventions leading to a strategy. A table facilitator ensures that the purpose of the game is understood, that the basic rules are followed and that everyone contributes to the collective solution;

b)      An effective strategy comprises a complex set of interventions that are tailored to each specific location but also interconnected in some way. In the game, there are basically three levels of intervention: The highlands, midlands, lowlands. Perhaps this geophysical set up is informed by the topography of Ethiopia, where the game was created.

Where the power of the game really reveals itself is in the discussions that participants have around the most effective interventions. Looking at the cards they received, the groups discuss the potential of a certain intervention or practice over another, and if they are not happy with the set of cards they have, they can trade some at the central practice bank. They may also come up with innovation cards – on new practices – which they develop as a group during the game. Discussing the pros and cons of each intervention for each level itself sheds light on the benefits of each approach and its potential to be embedded in and reinforce the whole strategy. The arguments and discussions leading to select strategies effectively unveil a picture that is bigger than the sum of the parts.

At the end of the phase, after about an hour and a half, participants introduce their collective strategy to one another. It is possible to spend additional time to cross-review and assess these strategies. This process reveals additional issues and factors that might justify the strategy or shape the understanding of how different practices and interventions make sense together or not.

The game has a lot of potential to generate common understanding around food and water issues, harness collective thinking and devise more effective strategies for water and food interventions. The rich discussions triggered by the game bear the promises of revealing new interventions and practices. Expert inputs can therefore broaden the understanding be put directly into practice in the game (as new intervention cards at the next iteration of the game). We also think it might be something we can take to local communities – for them to identity and discuss different practices and strategies, with each other and with experts.

It was only the second time that the ‘happy strategies’ game was played (it was first played in Bahir Dar in October 2011) and some tweaking is still required: The fictitious site was too closely molded on an Ethiopian landscape and the set of interventions was therefore adapted to that environment. For people unacquainted with Ethiopia, engaging proved challenging and their ideas of strategies and interventions differed substantially.  That said, the simple and entertaining exercise that the game offers – to work on otherwise very complex issues – is worth exploring further and for once the result matters less than the discussion process.

Mae West wouldn’t have put it otherwise.

Photos from the Bahir Dar game

Find all elements of the Happy Strategies game


On 3 February 2011, team members from the Nile Basin Development Challenge joined a one-day ‘Share Fair’ in Addis Ababa. Organized by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the event brought together 10 Agriculture Water Management projects to present their objectives, intended outcomes, products, timelines, stakeholders and geographical focus.

Each of ten participating projects presented a summary of their aims, activities, target groups, and perceived ‘unique selling points’ and areas where they face challenges.

Drawing on the strengths and weaknesses identified by the projects, participants then explored potential collaboration, with a focus on Ethiopia where all are active.

The event was strongly supported by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) – that funds several of the projects and wished to see greater synergies and learning across the various projects. It was facilitated by Nadia Manning-Thomas from the CGIAR ICT-KM Program (Nadia’s blog post)

The collective ‘unique selling points’ shared by the agri-water initiatives profiled at the event included:

  • We are a network not a project;
  • We employ open source sharing;
  • Our focus is on practical and do-able activities;
  • We focus on institutional contexts;
  • We have objective solid evidence from the field;
  • We are strong in climate, hydrological and water resource modeling;
  • We are strong in anthropological research;
  • We are strong in hydro-geological and socio-econonmic assessments;
  • We work closely with national and regional partners to spur widespread innovation, policy influence and institutional strengthening;
  • We employ cross-basin learning, knowledge sharing and continual communication for adaptive management;
  • We are expert in capacity building in Agwater management and in knowledge sharing skills;
  • We have an AgWater Management platform that people can use;
  • We will be able to provide local and specific assistance to farmers, in quasi real time; Our resources will be transparent (on the web);
  • We are able to implement new ideas quickly;
  • We have the largest water-related video collection on the web.

The collective ‘challenges’ points shared by the agri-water initiatives profiled at the event included:

  • How to operationalize demand-responsive, participatory, inclusive learning alliance/platform;
  • How to avoid ‘business as usual’;
  • How to develop creative and effective outreach;
  • How to translate findings to useful information;
  • How to cope with a massive scope in a short duration;
  • How to convert complex information into slick messages;
  • How to sustain functional partnership beyond financial incentives;
  • Can real small farmers do anything with the information we provide;
  • How can we engage with people beyond the water world;
  • how to derive actionable projects and results from our research messages.

Participating projects were:

View the ‘report’ of the meeting as two powerpoint files: