How can social network analysis help tackle West Africa’s challenges?

By Matthew Stephenson, Sahel and West Africa Club Secretariat (SWAC/OECD)

Social network analysis (SNA) is a powerful tool that helps understand interactions amongst individuals, groups or institutions (Ward, Stovel and Sacks 2011)[i]. It does so by considering the actors in a network (nodes) and the relationship between those actors (links). By looking at these relationships, SNA can be used to visualise which actors are more central to the interactions, which are at the core of the network, on the periphery, or act as a bridge to another network.

Why is SNA relevant for West Africa and the Sahel?  The challenges these countries share are of a regional, national and local nature, often transcending national boundaries. Actors interact both across countries and within regions in the same country, whether on issues of food security, physical security, trade or migration. These regional and national relationships are therefore ripe for SNA modelling. SNA’s graphical and spatial dimension can bring clarity to complex relationships and interactions between actors in West Africa.

Example of social network analysis: Centrality of actors in the Gaya-Malanville-Kamba trade network

(This figure maps the business relations between traders located in Niger, Benin and Nigeria)[ii]

Example of social network analysis: centrality of actors in the Gaya-Malanville-Kamba trade network


To offer other specific applications, SNA could be used to map agricultural flows in the region. Identifying which markets act as nodes, and the links between producers, distributors and consumers, provides critical information regarding infrastructure, the direction of trade or food security. Another, very different application might be to improve donor strategies and national policies in a region with multiple and sometimes overlapping developmental efforts.

SNA could also help understand the relationship between policy actors and the dynamics of policy adoption or policy change. In this case the nodes could be seen as policymakers across different countries and organisations in the region. The links could be the effect of one actor’s influence on the policy choice of another actor on a specific issue. SNA’s strength is that it can be used to map out both formal and informal policy relationships, whereas other methodologies are generally more focused on formal institutional relationships. This information could thus help to better identify where structural changes could facilitate policy exchange.

Such information is also critical when it comes to enabling cross-border co-operation. One needs to understand how cross-border policy networks work to understand how cross-border co-operation and regional integration can actually take place in practice. That is, how do policy networks operate in the region? Who are the nodes, links or bridges? The de facto social relationships may be different from the de jure formal, institutional relationships on paper. Furthermore, what happens when there are conflicts in policy position between different actors, or between the social reality and the formal institutional reality? These are the kinds of questions that need to be addressed to tackle challenges in the West Africa and Sahel region.

The OECD Sahel and West Africa Club is using applied social network analysis and data visualisation to help map and analyse the major challenges and opportunities of cross-border co-operation in West Africa. This mapping study will look at ten indicators including the proximity between population centres, access to urban centres and border markets, production centres, linguistic areas and the existence of cross-border co-operation mechanisms.

The early findings of this study will be discussed during the SWAC Forum at Expo Milano in October where researchers, experts and local actors will have the opportunity to learn about and exchange innovative approaches, such as SNA, to address complex development issues. We invite you to join the discussion and share with us your experiences with these kinds of analyses and approaches.


[i] Ward, Michael and Stovel, Katherine and Sacks, Audrey E., Network Analysis and Political Science (June 2011). Annual Review of Political Science, Vol. 14, pp. 245-264, 2011. Available at SSRN: or

[ii] Walther, O. (2015), “Social Network Analysis and Informal Trade”, Department of Border Region Studies Working Paper, No. 01/15, University of Southern Denmark,

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