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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.

2) Do we know how these principles can be implemented?

There are some basic lessons about how aid agencies need to work that we do know: for example, putting less weight on ex ante planning processes and more resources and incentives behind ongoing management and monitoring to deal with uncertainty.

These lessons have been well-known for decades, the evidence for them is in reams of evaluations and reviews, but they still have not been taken up, perhaps because unlike tools like ‘New Public Management’ there are no comprehensive, ready-made models that can be picked up and applied. One major, multinational collaboration between academia and the public sector is working towards this, the New Synthesis Project, which aims to build a model of public policy and administration fit for complexity, but we are still some way off.

Beyond the basic lessons, there are a broad raft of tools that would promise to help policy-makers and programmers at different levels to incorporate various different complexity principles.

There is no shortage of offers: Owen Barder thinks complexity means we should all be doing problem-driven iterative adaptation; Duncan Green agrees to some extent; Nancy Birdsall reckons that complexity means we need Cash On Delivery aid; and the Institute for Government in the UK argues complexity means we should spend more time stewarding the relationship between policy-making and implementation. I have tried to summarise some of the key programming tools, and Richard Hummelbrunner and myself brought together two guides on planning in the face of complexity, and for managing interventions.

In other words a number of tools seem like they may be useful, but it is far too early to have the evidence to say X or Y is the big thing in complexity.

It's perfectly simple.....

So the answer to this question has to be: we have a number of ideas on how to adjust policy and programming, but no firm evidence on which is the most appropriate for which circumstances.  In the principles outlined above we have a broad guide, but innovation is needed to go from principles to practice. People need to diagnose the levels and types of complexity faced in the different problems they are tasked with, and must judge best themselves how they can act on the corresponding principles in their situation.

 3) What is the way forwards for complexity and development?

Given that we are clear on the principles of what needs to happen but less on the details, it is important to think about ‘process, not prescription’:

A. Embed principles in programme structures, don’t just take up analytical tools: The history of participation in development gives a precautionary tale on the importance of integrating principles and lessons into organisational structures and procedures (rather than just taking up new tools). The three principles outlined above need to be embedded in when, where and with whom decisions are made. As Daniel Ticehurst or Irene Guijt will tell you about monitoring in the face of complexity, organisational structures and processes for monitoring are more important than the methods used to do the work.

B. Document practitioner and programming responses to complexity: The challenges of complexity are not new, but more could be done to review experiences of how people have tackled distributed capacities, divergent goals, and uncertain change processes, and what has worked where.  A recent study by the Centre for Aid and Public Expenditure at ODI found complexity-type principles central to enabling aid programmes to foster institutional change and highlights ways in which they have incorporated principles such as adaptation and learning into existing agency structures.

From my own experience there is a great deal of innovation in governance programmes around how to identify and capitalise upon opportunities for change.  More needs to be done to get at the tacit knowledge of practitioners – perhaps establishing communities of practice to facilitate ongoing learning around key principles and/or sectors.

C. Raise credibility with high-level decision-makers and HQ gatekeepers: To incentivise appropriate responses to complex problems simple measures could make a big difference, such as reduced requirements for ex-ante analysis (e.g. a more light touch ‘business case’ for DFID) combined with more incentives for adaptation (e.g. setting learning objectives for interventions and requiring evidence of lessons being taken on board) and results (e.g. Natsios suggests those who design programmes should be required to see them through in-country).

The opportunities to change these kind of policies are few and far-between, and are often the result of a political drive for reform combined with work by senior civil servants and staff working on ‘back office’ functions. The key to influencing this may be building the credibility of complexity at the top levels, and waiting for an opportunity when complexity ‘champions’ such as Owen and Ben might get their foot in the door.

Ben Ramalingam’s new book is an important milestone for complexity and development, and it is time for the debate to shift gears. The relevance of complexity and the basics of what need to be done to face it are relatively well-established, but it is unclear which are the best entry points for getting this done. There are good reasons why agencies have failed to take on simple lessons that have been known for decades, relating to their prevailing political and organisational incentives. While Matt Andrews is cautiously optimistic, It may be we have to find second-best solutions, e.g. David Booth recently argued that the best way to ensure aid is sufficiently adaptive and responsive is to place it at ‘arms length’ from the agencies themselves.

I cannot be at the book launch due to commitments here in Nepal, but if I could be in the audience I’d take the opportunity to press the panel on the way forwards. It is time to stop asking ‘what is complexity’ and ‘what does it mean for development?’, and instead now we have to ask: how can we integrate lessons into the way that aid works, and who will take the lead on this?

This post first appeard on From Poverty to Power
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