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Can aid agencies help systems fix themselves? The implications of complexity for development cooperation

Duncan Green's picture

Owen BarderOwen Barder gave a brilliant lecture on complexity and development to my LSE students earlier this year. Afterwards, I asked him to dig deeper into the ‘so whats’ for aid agencies. The result is this elegant essay (a bit long for a blog, but who cares?). I will try and get some responses to his arguments from similarly large brains.

If economic development is a property of a complex adaptive system, as I’ve argued elsewhere, then what, if anything, can development agencies and NGOs do to accelerate it?

ants in thailandTo be clear what we mean when we say that development is a system property, here’s an example from the animal kingdom. You may have seen recently that ants have recently developed “super colonies” – including one that covers 6,000km along the Mediterranean that is said to be the largest co-operative unit in the animal kingdom. It is natural to talk about the “behaviour” of the colony, even though we understand that we are really talking about the individual actions of hundreds of millions of ants. Each ant responds to its external environment, including the behaviour of other ants. Because all the ants are adjusting to each other, this creates the sense that the colony as a whole is changing its behaviour, and we soon begin to ascribe intent and agency to the colony rather than the individual ants of which it consists.

Like any complex adaptive system, an ant colony will tend to go through long periods of stability and then sudden periods of rapid change that come about when ants all adjust their behaviour in response to changes in the behaviour of the ants around them. The emergence of a super-colony did not depend on the ants individually becoming fitter and stronger, learning new skills or becoming more entrepreneurial. They didn’t suddenly have access to better nutrients that made them healthier– nor have the ants benefited from universal education, access to microcredit, or new vaccines.  In fact, the ants haven’t changed at all: the colony’s behaviour can change even if the individual ants have not, because it is a self-organising complex system whose behaviour in aggregate is not simply the sum of its parts: it is determined to a large extent by the way those parts interact with each other.
 

Campaign art: Look beyond the LGBTI labels

Roxanne Bauer's picture

People, Spaces, Deliberation bloggers present exceptional campaign art from all over the world. These examples are meant to inspire.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals face many difficulties, but perhaps one of the most difficult is dealing with the stereotypes that are attributed to their status.  A new video from the United Nations Human Rights office highlights their diversity and shows LGBTI as the normal, accomplished individuals that they are.  Among the faces we meet in the video are a firefighter, a police officer, a teacher, an electrician, a doctor, and a volunteer, as well as prominent straight ally UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
 
The video was shown on the massive screens in New York’s Times Square ahead of International Day Against Homophobia & Transphobia, which is observed on Sunday, May 17 in many countries around the world. 
 
VIDEO: Faces


The things we do: How our competitive natures may help reduce our carbon footprints

Roxanne Bauer's picture

adjusting a home thermostat to save energyIn order to tackle the adverse effects of climate change in our lifetimes, the global community will need all hands on deck. One software company has found a way of reducing energy consumption by tapping into social psychology.

One way of thinking about how to approach climate change is to divide the issue into ‘wedges’.  One wedge would be to increase renewable energy production, another would be to increase energy efficiency in the electric grid, and a third, to make buildings more energy efficient. Along with these other improvements, changing human behavior is another, very important wedge. 

Two families that are demographically similar, living side by side, in similar apartments, can use dramatically different amounts of energy— the difference of which can be attributed to behavioral differences.

Keeping up with the Neighbors

These behavioral differences were demonstrated in a famous psychology experiment that focused on home energy use. The research team, led by two psychologists, Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University and Wesley Schultz of California State University, San Marcos, hung a series of five door hangers with energy-saving messages on several hundred homes in a San Diego suburb in 2004.   One hanger encouraged people to "join their neighbors" in conserving energy, one appealed to their self-interest to save money, another called on them to save energy to protect the environment, and a fourth asked them to conserve energy for future generations and the benefit of society. A fifth and final message simply stated that summer is here and it’s a time to save energy with no underlying reason.

The researchers measured the effectiveness of the messages by obtaining meter readings before and after the door hangers were distributed. They found that the last four had minimal effect. But the first, which mentioned the neighbors, produced a significant 10% reduction in home energy usage.

Helping communicate the potential of PPPs through a new, free online course

Clive Harris's picture

Public-Private Partnerships (PPP): How can PPPs help deliver better services? New, free massive open online course (MOOC) course provides an understanding of the key principles of PPPs and the role of PPPs in the delivery of infrastructure services, particularly in emerging markets.

Public-Private Partnerships MOOCThe World Bank Group’s twin goals of ending extreme poverty by 2030 and promoting shared prosperity can’t be achieved unless we see a huge boost in the quality and quantity of infrastructure services. Boost infrastructure and do it right and you can generate jobs and boost economic growth. Improving sanitation and access to clean water is essential to improve health outcomes. 
 
According to World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, “Today, the developing world spends about $1 trillion on infrastructure, and only a small share of those projects involves private actors. Overall, private investments and public-private partnerships in developing countries totaled $150 billion in 2013, down from $186 billion in 2012. So it will take the commitment of all of us to help low- and middle-income countries bridge the massive infrastructure divide.”
 
Public-private partnerships (PPPs) can be an important way for governments to help supplement the role of the public sector in meeting the infrastructure deficit.  But PPPs are controversial – there have been some high profile, expensive failures, and some stakeholders feel the private sector should not be involved in providing basic infrastructure services like water. 
 

Quote of the Week: B.B. King

Sina Odugbemi's picture

B.B. King Live im Audimax der Uni Hamburg, November 1971“Growing up on the plantation there in Mississippi, I would work Monday through Saturday noon,” he said. “I’d go to town on Saturday afternoons, sit on the street corner, and I’d sing and play.

I’d have me a hat or box or something in front of me. People that would request a gospel song would always be very polite to me, and they’d say: ‘Son, you’re mighty good. Keep it up. You’re going to be great one day.’ But they never put anything in the hat.

But people that would ask me to sing a blues song would always tip me and maybe give me a beer. They always would do something of that kind. Sometimes I’d make 50 or 60 dollars one Saturday afternoon. Now you know why I’m a blues singer.”


-B.B. King, an American blues singer, songwriter and guitarist. He is widely regarded as one of the most influential blues guitarists of all time, inspiring countless other electric blues and blues rock guitarists

Brian Levy’s ‘Working with the Grain’

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Working With the Grain by Brian LevyWhat are the proper ambits of an agenda for improving governance systems in developing countries? And what is the most sensible way of implementing governance reforms, or even thinking about them? If you have been involved with the subject you know that these are vexed questions. Just last week, I attended a book launch here at the World Bank and a senior official involved with governance made the following point. There is no agreed framework for the work in governance, certainly not one developed by political scientists. What we have, he said, is an agenda developed by donors and it boils down to a way of making simple normative judgements based on a linear framework.

That may well be the point of Brian Levy’s fascinating and readable newish book: Working with the Grain: Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies (Oxford Universities Press, 2014). Levy is an esteemed thinker-practitioner who worked for the World Bank until recently and is now a member of the faculties of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University here in Washington and the University of Cape Town. He divides his time between the two schools.

The book is a summing up of sorts. Levy had tremendous field experience while at the World Bank, and he tells war stories with wit and some panache. It is also the result of his deep reading and reflection. As a result, Working with the Grain is part memoir, part polemic, part hard-headed political economy analysis.  

Weekly wire: The global forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

World of NewsThese are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

In international aid, people should be seen as consumers not 'beneficiaries'
The Guardian
A poor widow in rural Bangladesh can choose from many competing mobile phone operators, weighing the best rates and customer service in order to reach her decision. Why should she not also have the right to choose, or at least be informed about, which NGO builds her flood-resistant home and be given the right to seek redress if it is washed away next flood season.  For the billions of the poorest people around the world who rely on philanthropic aid to meet even basic needs, as the saying goes, “beggars can’t be choosers”. But why shouldn’t philanthropic programmes abide by the same consumer rights rules expected of a traditional business selling soap or toothpaste? Both are delivering products or services to people, be they wealthy or impoverished: the only major difference is who is paying for it.

Democracy Does Not Live by Tech Alone
Foreign Policy
Enthusiasm for reforming our democracies has been gaining momentum. From the pages of Foreign Policy to the colorful criticisms of comedian Russell Brand, it is evident that a long-overdue public conversation on this topic is finally getting started.  There is no lack of proposals. For example, in their recent Foreign Policy piece, John Boik and colleagues focus on decentralized, emergent, tech-driven solutions such as participatory budgeting, local currency systems, and open government. They are confident that such innovations have a good chance of “spreading virally” and bringing about major change. Internet-based solutions, in particular, have captured our collective imagination. From Pia Mancini’s blockbuster TED presentation to New Scientist‘s recent coverage of “digital democracy,” we’re eager to believe that smartphone apps and novel online platforms hold the key to reinventing our way of governance. This seems only natural: after all, the same technologies have already radically reconfigured large swaths of our daily lives.
 

Back to the future in Mongolia

Gonzalo Castro de la Mata's picture

‘Ger’ dwellings of the millennial Mongolian cultureAlthough by definition there are many anniversaries each and every year, 2015 stands out as it includes the 70th anniversary of the fall of Nazi Berlin and the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. It is also the year in which Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) had to return in “Back to the Future– II.”

Visiting the plains of northern Mongolia today is the closest thing to travelling in time. The most salient features in this otherwise flat and infinite landscape are the Gers (from the Turkish Yurt), traditional round structures made of wood frames covered with felt and animal skins. Over centuries, these structures have evolved to protect their inhabitants from the harsh winter weather.

Except by their size, today’s Gers are no different from those used by the Great Kublai Khan in the late 1200s. If you happen to have access to Netflix, you can watch the Marco Polo series and witness the portrayal of the 13th century events when the Khan ruled over a vast and powerful empire. According to this series, as well as to serious historical sources, the Gers used by the Great Kublai Khan before settling in present-day Beijing, were extremely luxurious and included gold service for their interminable dinner courses.

Media (R)evolutions: The mobile industry's multiplier effect on the global economy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

New developments and curiosities from a changing global media landscape: People, Spaces, Deliberation brings trends and events to your attention that illustrate that tomorrow's media environment will look very different from today's, and will have little resemblance to yesterday's.

The global mobile technology industry continues to grow and is now a major source of employment generation.  When mobile operators purchase inputs and services from their providers in the supply chain, they generate sales and value added in other sectors and industries, creating a multiplier effect on the rest of the economy.  Accordingly, employment in the mobile technology industry can be directly tied to the product, like engineers, managers, and sales staff that work for mobile operators and manufactures, but it can also be indirectly tied to the product, like application development, content provision, and call centers that serve not only mobile operators and manufacturers but also third-party content and device producers. In some developing countries, outsourcing of mobile content development creates significant numbers of indirect employment opportunities.

In 2014, it was estimated that the mobile technology industry directly employed approximately 12.8 million people globally and 11.8 million people indirectly, bringing the total impact to just under 25 million jobs.
 
Global mobile ecosystem employment impact

What does it mean to do policy-relevant research and evaluation?

Heather Lanthorn's picture

Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) researchers upload the data to see the resultsWhat does it mean to do policy-relevant research and evaluation? How does it differ from policy adjacent research and evaluation? Heather Lanthorn explores these questions and offers some food for thought on intention and decision making.

This post is really a conversation with myself, which I started here, but I would be happy if everyone was conversing on it a bit more: what does it mean to do research that is ‘policy relevant’? From my vantage point in impact evaluation and applied political-economy and stakeholder analyses, ‘policy relevant’ is a glossy label that a researcher or organization can apply to his/her own work at his/her own discretion. This is confusing, slightly unsettling, and probably dulls some of the gloss off the label.

The main thrust of the discussion is this: we (researchers, donors, folks who have generally bought-into the goal of evidence- and evaluation-informed decision-making) should be clear (and more humble) about what is meant by ‘policy relevant’ research and evaluation. I don’t have an answer to this, but I try to lay out some of the key facets, below.
 
Overall, we need more thought and clarity – as well as humility – around what it means to be doing policy-relevant work. As a start, we may try to distinguish work that is ‘policy adjacent’ (done on a policy) from work that is either ‘decision-relevant’ or ‘policymaker-relevant’ (similar to ‘decision-relevant,’ (done with the explicit, ex ante purpose of informing a policy or practice decision and therefore an intent to be actionable).
 
I believe the distinction I am trying to draw echoes what Tom Pepinsky wrestled with when he blogged that it was the “murky and quirky” questions and research (a delightful turn of phrase that Tom borrowed from Don Emmerson) “that actually influence how they [policymakers / stakeholders] make decisions” in each of their own idiosyncratic settings. These questions may be narrow, operational, and linked to a middle-range or program theory (of change) when compared to a grander, paradigmatic question.
 
Throughout, my claim is not that one type of work is more important or that one type will always inform better decision-making. I am, however, asking that, as “policy-relevant” becomes an increasingly popular buzzword, we pause and think about what it means.

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