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Systems Thinking

#6 from 2017: What is a systems approach, anyway?

David Evans's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2017. This post was originally posted on February 27, 2017.

“It makes me a little crazy when you keep saying systems.” – Jowhor Ile, in And After Many Days

At home, we have a porchlight at the entrance to our house. If I flip the switch for that light, there is about a 50-50 chance it will turn on. The reason? There is another switch in the basement that controls the electricity flow to the porch, and the porchlight will only come on if both switches are on.

This – slightly adapted – analogy came from Justin Sandefur at the Center for Global Development, in an effort to explain what a systems approach is and how it can improve development programming.

If you’re like us, there is so much talk about systems that it can be easy to get lost. At a recent event, we asked a mixed group of operational teams and researchers, “How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?” Nearly 40 percent had little to no idea.

How confident are you that you know what a systems approach is?

To take education as an example, a systems approach to education recognizes the following:

1. An education system is made up of different actors (students, teachers, administrators, political leaders), accountability relationships (management, politics), and design elements (financing, information) (see Pritchett or Scur).

2. Changes to one part of the system are moderated by other parts of the system. For example, the effectiveness of investments to get children to school will be limited (or enhanced) by the quality of the schooling.

3. A change to one part of the system leads to changes in other parts of the system: increased public provision of school supplies won’t increase learning if parents subsequently reduce their pre-existing investments in school supplies, as indicated by what happened in India and Zambia (Das et al.).

A systems approach seeks to explicitly take these separate components and their interlinking movements into account.

Three models demonstrate how a systems approach can apply at each point in the reform process: One identifies the current performance of each element of the system, one answers questions of what happens as elements of that system change, and one seeks to leverage this information to improve reforms.

Book review- The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success by Naomi Hossain

Duncan Green's picture

Over the summer I read a few absolutely brilliant books – hence the spate of book reviews. This week I will cover two new studies on development’s biggest recent success stories – China, but first Bangladesh.

How did Bangladesh go from being a ‘basket case’ (though ‘not necessarily our basket case’ – Henry Kissinger, 1971) to a development success story, claimed by numerous would-be fathers (aid donors, NGOs, feminists, microfinanciers, low cost solution finders)? That’s the subject of an excellent new book by Naomi Hossain.

The success is undeniable. Per capita income is up to $2780 from $890 in 1991 (PPP terms). Today, that economic progess is built on 3 pillars: garments (80% of exports, 3m largely female jobs), migration (remittances = 7-10% GDP, about 9m workers overseas, mainly men) and microfinance (which has been used by about half of all households).

But perhaps even more interesting, social progress has outstripped economic growth. Infant mortality down from 258/1,000 in 1961 to 47 in 2011; women were having 7 kids in 1961 and are now having 2. In Hossain’s words (she writes well) ‘Bangladesh is the smiling, more often than not sweetly female, face of global capitalist development. Better yet – she often wears a headscarf as she goes about enjoying her new economic and political freedoms, signalling that moderate Islam can couple with global capitalism.’ (And yes, she does acknowledge that there is still a lot of hunger and deprivation).

The ‘how’ of Bangladesh’s transformation is reasonably well known. What interests Hossain is the ‘why’. It certainly isn’t down to good governance – ‘it has never been obvious why an elite known best for corruption and violent winner-takes-all politics should have committed its country to a progressive, inclusive development pathway.’

Why rethinking how we work on market systems and the private sector is really hard

Duncan Green's picture

Whatever your ideological biases about ‘the private sector’ (often weirdly conflated with transnational corporations in NGO-land), markets really matter to poor people (feeding families, earning a living, that kind of thing).  But ‘making markets work for the poor’ turns out to be really difficult and, just as with attempts to tackle corruption or improve institutions, there is a rethink going on in the aid business. Critics of conventional approaches (of which I am one) argue that systems thinking and complexity both explain why a lot of previous approaches haven’t worked that well, and suggest some new ways to tackle the problem.

To catch up on some new research on all this, I spent a fascinating afternoon at DFID last week. The ‘knowledge hub’ BEAM Exchange (they don’t like to be called a thinktank) presented a discussion paper and technical paper on ‘rethinking systemic change’, along with a warts-and-all case study from Palladium on the difficulty of trying to put this into practice in a large market development programme in Uganda. Some highlights.

The discussion and technical papers reviewed the lessons from the 3 elements of New Economic Thinking: evolutionary economics, new institutional economics and complex adaptive systems. Eric Beinhocker’s influence much in evidence. The papers draw some useful and pretty challenging conclusions:

‘The aim of development must be to enhance the evolutionary process in an economy and create access to this process for all levels of the society, both politically and economically.’

Building Capacity vs. Building Capability: Why Development Needs ‘Systems Thinking’

Roxanne Bauer's picture

This is the fifth post in a series of six in which Michael Woolcock, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank and lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, discusses critical ideas within the field of Social Development.

Development is both an individual and collective endeavor. To be lifted out of poverty, people must attend school, stay healthy, live free of violence, and find rewarding employment— to name a few.  Yet these achievements rely on the systems that provide these services and opportunities— the educational system, the healthcare system, the police and civil servants… the list goes on.  

Systems, as many of us know, rely on a huge amount of human interaction. Every system relies on time being kept, progress and problems being reported, and rules being followed. This is why Michael Woolcock emphasizes that development could be more effective if it focused on building the capability of systems, not just the capacity of individuals. 

In his mind, capacity building involves strengthening the individual ability of people to function or perform tasks. It therefore, focuses on skills training and improving technical ability among individuals. But people change, they move around, they leave.  What is really needed for development to take hold are strong systems that can deliver services and weather storms. These complex systems underpin much of what people do and require learned collective skills, robust structures, rules that apply for everyone.
 

Video

Book Review: Social Physics: How social networks can make us smarter

Duncan Green's picture

https://flic.kr/p/rSxSDwMy Christmas reading included a book called Social Physics – yep, a party animal (my others were Lord of the Flies and Knausgard Vol 3, both wonderful). Here’s the review:

Airport bookstores are bewildering places – shelf after shelf of management gurus offering distilled lessons on leadership, change and everything else. How to distinguish snake oil from substance? My Christmas reading, based on a recommendation from someone attending a book launch in the US last month (thanks whoever you were – all a bit of a blur now) was Alex Pentland’s ‘Social Physics: How Social Networks can make us Smarter’. I must confess, as a lapsed physicist, the title swung it for me, but I learned a lot from this book. At least I think I did – let’s see if I am still using the ideas in a few months’ time.

Social Physics is not a new idea. Auguste Comte, the founder of modern sociology, coined the phrase back in the 19th century. Comte and his crew aspired to explain social reality by developing a set of universal laws—the sociological equivalent of physicists’ quest to create a theory of everything. As with economics, that kind of physics envy has proved largely delusional. Now though, Pentland argues that the arrival of Big Data means we can aspire to a ‘thermodynamics of society’, where behaviour is governed by discernible mathematical laws. It does not deny free will – Pentland does not claim to be able to predict individual behaviour, but finds a high degree of certainty in mass behaviours, which appear to follow particular patterns (like atoms in a gas).

Rethinking research: Systemic approaches to the ethics and politics of knowledge production in fragile states

Humanity Journal's picture

Classroom in MaliRecently, Humanity, a peer-reviewed academic journal from the University of Pennsylvania, has been hosting an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. In light of the intensification of evidence-based policymaking and the “data revolution” in development, the symposium asked what the ethical and political implications are for qualitative research as a tool of governance.

We are presenting their articles in the coming days to share the authors' thoughts with the People, Spaces, Deliberation community and generate further discussion.

The symposium will begin tomorrow with a short paper from Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott, followed by responses during the coming weeks from Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo (ODI); Michael Woolcock (World Bank); Morten Jerven (Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Simon Fraser University); Alex de Waal (World Peace Foundation); and Holly Porter (LSE). We hope that you enjoy the symposium and participate in the debate!

How can big aid organizations become Fit for the Future? Summary of my new paper

Duncan Green's picture

My navel-gazing paper on the future of INGOs and other big aid beasts came out last week. Here’s a summary I wrote for the Guardian. Thanks to all those who fed in on earlier drafts. Oxfam’s Deputy CEO Penny Lawrence gives a semi-official response.

UK International Search and Rescue teamA miasma of existential doubt seems to hang over large chunks of the aid industry, even here in the UK, where I’ve argued before that a combination of government, NGOs, think tanks, academics, media, public opinion and history constitutes a particularly productive and resilient ‘development cluster’. The doubts materialize in serial bouts of navel-gazing, worrying away about our ‘value add’ and future role (if any).

So when asked to add to the growing pile of blue sky reports, I decided to approach the topic from a different angle: what does all the stuff I’ve been reading and writing about systems thinking, complexity, power and politics mean for how international NGOs and other big aid beasts function in the future?

The result, published this month by Oxfam, is a discussion paper, Fit For the Future? But if you can’t face its 20 pages, here are some highlights:

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.

Lant Pritchett on Why We Struggle to Think in Systems (and Look for Heroes and Villains Instead)

Duncan Green's picture

rebirth-education-lant-pritchettThis passage in Lant Pritchett’s new book, The Rebirth of Education, (reviewed here yesterday), had me gurgling with pleasure. It explains, in vintage Pritchett prose, why we all find it so hard to think in terms of systems, rather than agents (i.e. heroes and villains). He totally nails the origins of that glazed look I see in the eyes of my Oxfam colleagues when I start going on about systems, complexity, emergence etc:

“I am going on at length about this because this book is about explaining and fixing poor learning outcomes by fixing broken systems, not fixing people. But I have to go on about this because system explanations just have no appeal to people, myself included. Agent-centered explanations are powerfully appealing to us, on a very deep level. Believe me, if your child says, “Daddy, tell me a story,” you can be sure he or she wants a story with agents, heroes and villains who have goals and make plans and overcome obstacles.

How do We Move from Getting Kids into School to actually Educating Them? Provocative New Book by Lant Pritchett

Duncan Green's picture

rebirth-education-lant-pritchettI approached Lant Pritchett’s new book ‘The Rebirth of Education’ with glee and trepidation. Glee because Lant is one of the smartest, wittiest and best writers and thinkers on development. Trepidation because this issue is an intellectual minefield of Somme-like proportions (remember the epic Kevin Watkins v Justin Sandefur battle?). And sure enough, Lant took me into all kinds of uncomfortable places. Allow me to share my confusion.

First the book. Based on a data-tastic summary of a lot of research and case studies, Lant argues, in the words of the book’s subtitle, that ‘Schooling Ain’t Learning’:

  • In India less than half of children surveyed in grade 5 could read a story for second graders (and over 1 in 4 could not read a simple sentence), and only slightly more than half could do subtraction. Results over several years were getting worse, not better. See graphic for more examples.
  • In Tanzania over 65 percent of students who sat the 2012 examination for secondary school (Form IV) completers failed, with the worst possible results.
  • A majority of 15 year-olds in low- and middle-income countries have only learned enough to reach the bottom 5 percent of their peers in high-income countries.