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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.

The writing is authoritative, with humour and real verve, plus a lovely turn of phrase (unusual from an aid wonk, but then Ben has hinterland, including being an aspiring playwright). Lots of memorable one liners and quotes (‘Some problems are so complex that you have to be highly intelligent and well informed just to be undecided about them.’)

The aid debunk may be necessary, but it’s not that new – critiques of logframes, ‘bestpracticitis’ and results fetishism are pretty standard, certainly on this blog. And it feels overdone – do we really need another 132 page takedown? Can we get onto the complexity bit please? The ferocity of the critique and the proliferation of straw men (the aid world as depicted here is static, monolithic and pretty much devoid of self doubt and internal debate, whereas my experience is that it spends a lot of time on both) also worried me. There is a risk that by adopting such a tone, the book could alienate aid workers, making them throw the book down as a caricature before they get to the important ‘so whats’ at the end.

The second chunk of the book provides a great introduction to complexity and systems thinking. If anything, Ben has read too much (again, not a common problem in aid land), because it’s easy to get lost in all the exposition – cities as complex systems; agent-based modelling; edge of chaos; fitness landscapes; network theory; power laws; sandpile thinking: yay! a whole picnic hamper of new jargon!  It’s all a bit indigestible on a single reading. I got a lot more when I went back and reread it.

Finally, (page 240) we get to the so whats: what the aid system needs to do differently to make it function better in complex systems. This is not easy, as Ben has to tread the fine line between coming up with a new blueprint – committing the very sin he is criticising – and helpless paralysis: ‘all too often it can serve simply to highlight what shouldn’t be done, or how not to work, in a complex setting.’

There’s some really useful stuff here, first on mindsets: Development is full of ‘self-organizing systems’, constantly evolving in unpredictable ways. The key for anyone engaged in the aid business is to put their own role aside, take a deep breath and look: ‘map, observe, and listen to the system to identify the spaces where change is already happening and try to encourage and nurture them.’

But also on the practicalities. The book is a treasure trove of examples squirreled away by Ben – eco-health systems approaches that have had a huge impact in Kenya via ‘integrated malaria management’; ‘positive deviance’ approaches to child health in Vietnam; simulation games; adaptive management: Ben holds up Odysseus as the role model, ‘navigating a course between order and chaos’. Some of this is more relevant to the big guys – DFID, the World Bank etc – who have the resources to think in terms of system-wide interventions, but there’s plenty for us little NGOs too. This section should stimulate new options in even the most jaded aid worker.

All great, but I have one overall concern and that’s structure. Isn’t a bit weird that a book about complexity has such a profoundly linear structure (problems of aid → what is complexity → so what), meaning you only get to the really important and useful bit on page 240? Conclusion? Shoot the editor, and maybe ask the publisher to publish pages 240-360 separately for time-poor, reading averse NGO types.

But let’s not end with a whinge. The book explains that in the language of complex systems, its title ‘Edge of Chaos’ is ‘hypothesized as the optimal position for learning’. This book both contains and encourages some essential learning for making us look harder and more creatively at the world we are trying to influence, and designing better aid programmes as a result. We should give thanks (and give each other copies for Christmas).

And the most salient points coming out of last night’s launch?

Cost: work in complex systems requires more monitoring, more adaptation. Even if you get it right, it will be a lot more expensive than sticking to working in ‘islands of linearity’

Communications: we need to communicate this, but not through baffling geekspeak on ‘complex adaptive systems’. Best way is to tell stories (as Ben does so well).

Ben’s last word: ‘We in the aid should move from being people who know the answers to people who know what questions to ask.’ Nice.

This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power
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