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Complexity

What Happens when 20 Middle East Decision Makers Discuss Theories of Change?

Duncan Green's picture
My first job after returning from holiday (disaster tourism in Northern Ireland – don’t ask) was to speak on Theories of Change to a really interesting group – ‘building a rule of law leadership network in the Middle East’, funded by the UK Foreign Office. The John Smith Trust has about 20 lawyers, civil servants, policemen, UN personnel and business people for a 3 week training programme. Equal numbers of men and women, from Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman. Chatham House rules so that’s your lot viz info.

Over the course of a year, each Leadership Fellow develops an Action Plan for reform back home, ranging from girls’ education to police training to civil society strengthening, and will work on it during their UK visit, where they get inputs from people like me, discussions and visits to the UK Parliament and elsewhere.

I was presenting on theories of change (ToCs) – here’s my powerpoint. My co-presenter (from a UK thinktank) defined a ToC as ‘a conceptual map of how activities lead to outcomes’. As you might imagine, I disagreed with the implied linearity of that. But the disagreement, and the views of those present was interesting.

Aid on the Edge of Chaos, A Book You Really Need to Read and Think About

Duncan Green's picture

It’s smart, well-written and provides a deeper intellectual foundation for much of the most interesting thinking going on in the aid business right now. Ben Ramalingam (right)’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos should rapidly become a standard fixture on any development reading list.

The book argues for a major overhaul of aid in recognition that the world is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, far removed from the assumed linear world of cause → attributable effect that underpins a lot of aid programmes. That fits pretty perfectly with a lot of the stuff on governance, institutional reform etc from ODI, Matt Andrews, and Oxfam’s own work, all covered on this blog. But it adds to it in important ways.

  • It deepens our understanding of complexity and systems thinking, drawing on a range of other disciplines
  • Much of the current aid thinking about complexity is happening in work on governance and (to a lesser extent) advocacy. The book widens the scope to just about every corner of the aid business – management, humanitarian, health etc
  • Its 25 great case studies will spark ideas in people’s heads about how they can apply the thinking in their own work

The argument is divided into three sections: a thorough critique of the current aid system; an introduction to complexity and systems thinking; and a final ‘so what’ section on the reform of aid.

Complexity 101 – Part 2: Getting to the So Whats

Duncan Green's picture

ODI’s Harry Jones continues his stocktake on complexity and development.

Yesterday, I tried to pose and answer some straight questions on complexity and development, mostly focusing on whether development problems are complex and why it matters. Today, I try to answer the ‘so what’ question and suggest three areas where changes to aid agency practice could be made:

1) How can development agencies tackle complexity?

Aligning with the three challenges outlined yesterday (distributed capacities, divergent goals and uncertain change pathways), I’d argue that all solutions proposed to deal with complexity fall into one of the three categories:

  • Interventions must capitalise on distributed capacities, finding ways to link up actors and action that fosters more voluntary coordination and collaboration.
  • Interventions must facilitate joint interpretation of key problems by key actors, and must enable negotiation on and commitment to common goals.
  • Interventions must innovate, must foster learning about how change happens, and must be flexible enough to adapt to emerging signals.

This is the reverse of the typical bureaucratic reaction to complex problems, which seeks to ‘reduce’ complexity by strengthening centralised oversight, agreeing up front on narrow, singular goals, and trying to determine in advance what will work and what will be needed. While these approaches have their place, uncertainty, divergence and distributed capacities are integral to many problems and cannot easily be swept under the carpet.

Complexity 101: Behind the Hype, What Do We Actually Know?

Duncan Green's picture

Complexity week continues with this excellent stocktake from the ODI’s Harry Jones (who’s got a new guide out on ‘Managing Projects and Programmes in the Face of Complexity‘). Part two tomorrow.

Seven years ago John Young, Ben Ramalingam and I decided to begin research on complexity theory and international development.  We felt there was really something of use and interest in there but that it might take some time to persuade others of that fact and more time to find out exactly what that value was: although there were already a few people working on complexity, since  then, the blogosphere has come alive with discussion of the ‘C’ word. It’s clear a large number of development professionals see value in complexity theory and international development (for example, here is Owen Barder on complexity in international development, William Easterly’s take, Ben’s blog devoted to the issue, and all the posts on Duncan Green’s blog about complexity and development).

What we don’t seem to have reached is much agreement on exactly what that value is. As we look forwards to this week’s launch of Ben’s book on complexity in development (which I have yet to read), it seems an opportune time to reflect on what we know. In that 2008 exploratory review we set out to examine whether complexity and development was a case of ‘paradigm, hype, or lens. Six years on, here’s my attempt to review the evidence on some straight questions on complexity and development, in two parts.  In this first part, I look at whether development problems are complex and why it matters; in the second part I will look at what to do about that complexity where it exists.

*N.B. to avoid disappearing up my own comments page I will use the popular simple-complicated-complex (bake a cake, make a rocket, raise a child) schema subscribed to by Stacey, Zimmerman, Snowden et al.

Hurling Elections at Complexity

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It keeps happening, this pell-mell rush to elections. A country is struggling to come out of conflict we insist on elections straightaway. A country has just survived decades of colonial or authoritarian rule, we insist on elections immediately. The elections happen in some often ramshackle, rough and ready manner then we claim that a new democracy has been born.  And we pile on all the expectations of ‘democratic governance’.

And who is the ‘we’ above? That strange creature known as the international community, that’s what.

That this business of hurling ‘elections’ at complexity often ends in tears has not deterred the international community, has not led to a reconsideration of the formula. Each time the effort breaks down in a particular country what is the new cry? Fresh elections of course, as soon as possible!

There are enormous problems bedeviling this approach. The main one is that it resolutely ignores the fact that you cannot build a stable constitutional democracy (more about the formal features in a moment) unless certain structural factors are in place. For instance, one of the things that I find upsetting is how people fail to realize that if you simply rush to elections in a country run until that point as a well-developed authoritarian state, especially if these are winners-take-all elections, what the victors inherit is not a democratic state. What they inherit is an authoritarian state. What do you think the victors are going to do? They are going to use the powers, tools and habits of the authoritarian state to serve their own interests and crush their opponents.  And they will claim to be able to do so in the name of something called democracy. That is what happened in post-colonial states in places like Africa and eventually led to all manner of civil wars.

What Kind of Science Do We Need for the Aid and Post-2015 Agenda?

Duncan Green's picture

Spent an intriguing evening last week speaking on a panel at the wonderful Royal Society (Isaac Newton and all that), on the links between the post-2015 agenda and science. The audience was from the government/science interface – people with job titles like ‘Head of Extreme Events’.

I talked (powerpoint here – keep clicking) about how science can help developmentistas by bringing them up to date with what science is actually about. Less Newton more Darwin, in terms of moving from a 19th Century world of linear causal chains, static equilibria and reductionism, to ecological and complexity thinking. I also tried linking some of the stuff I’ve been reading on complexity thinking with the Cynefin framework. It seems to me we need different kinds of science for the different quadrants: