Complexity 101 – part 2: Getting to the So Whats

November 7, 2013

How complexity thinking cut malnutrition in Vietnam by two thirds

November 7, 2013

Aid on the Edge of Chaos, a book you really need to read and think about

November 7, 2013
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I held off reviewing Ben’s book til after last night’s launch at ODI, so that I could add any useful extra info or soundbites. Here goes.Ben-Ramalingam

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.

Ben Ramalingam coverThe 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 optimalcomplexity signposition 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.


  1. Nice review of the book Duncan.

    But you seem to have been at a different meeting to me last night. I didn’t think cost or communications were the salient points from the discussion.

    There is no reason to think the probe-sense-respond approach is more expensive than the plan-implement-fail approach.

    And the communications stuff was all a red herring – the important thing is to get the development policies right.

    1. Nah, we just remember the questions we had to answer best! The other points that emerged (but would have required other posts altogether) included
      – our different views on the implications for the results agenda. I understood you to be saying, this means we need to invest more in collecting data, to which my response would be, depends what you mean by data – our experience of a lot of this is that it prompts a shift from quant to qual in terms of measuring what counts.
      – whether this is really about aid at all, or development much more broadly (with signs of a consensus on the latter)

  2. Thanks for the review. Am looking forward to reading it.
    Now that I read the review I am not looking forward to it as much any more.

    It is funny that you make that comment about the linear structure. It is a book in the end and part of this is realising that we have to use different media for comms.. We would not be thinking complexity and network theory in the way we do without the internet having come about.

  3. Duncan – I agree with these two (including you being wrong about results). I think there was also an interesting strand of conversation about whether incumbent aid agencies will in fact change, or are they too heavily locked in to legacy models.

    On my way home I was reflecting how impervious the entire group seems to be to the idea that there are things we can and should learn from other disciplines, exemplified by an indifference to mastering basic concepts such the distinctions between “complex”, “chaotic”, “complicated”, “uncertain”, “risky” and “random”.

    1. Owen, know what you mean about the importance of distinguishing, in particular between simple, complicated and complex. See my earlier post ( on baking a cake v moon landing v raising a child for an attempt to do that in language that doesn’t drive people away. The raising a child metaphor in particular seems to really resonate with people.

  4. I think communications are always going to be important in bringing donors and taxpayers with you. You need to explain why working like this will be more effective than past models.

  5. I’m not sure how relevant / useful the below links are but wanted to share in case they might be. In my own searching for how to contribute to change I came across the Munro Report on the UK’s child protection system

    Based on my own reading, the report found the system was too obsessed with control and measurement of fixed pre-determined outputs, unable to respond to the variety of cases child protection workers encountered. The Report’s recommendations and the linked College of Social Work Capabilities Framework ( suggest an awareness of complexit and the increasing in value attached to critical thinking and adaptation (compared to learn A, B and C and always do D and E). I’m unsure how these recommendations are being responded to and their impact, however, wanted to share here in case useful to others, or others could share any additional knowledge.

  6. Interesting review. But two things to note. First, the ‘so what’ always comes from somewhere and too often we do not get the theoretical and epistemological foundations of this so lets not lose the important middle. Far too many ‘lessons learnt’ are kicking around with no foundation to their emergent trajectory – sometimes theory is helpful here. Second, the straw men is salient as there is still such a gaping hole between practitioners and the research field. It is easy to skim across the literature for the ‘development stereotype’ because that is what sells books (thanks Dambisa Moyo), but the reality is far more nuanced. I don’t think you need to totally debunk the ‘cake’ to explain the ‘children’. In fact, most children I know are very fond of cake – even if they tend to be eating it! I look forward to reading this myself.

  7. Thanks for the review Duncan, I’ve ordered myself a copy.

    Can I press you/Owen/etc on what kinds of ‘next steps’ came out of the meeting? As per my question at the end of the blog, did there emerge a better sense of how can we integrate lessons into the way that aid works, and who will take the lead on this? It’s clearly a tricky problem given the amount of time some of these main lessons have been lying around not acted upon.

    The closest I’ve seen to an explicit ‘theory of change’ on getting these ideas taken up was Matt Andrews’ recent blog on whether the WB can do PDIA, what do you think of that? Do Owen and Ben feel like their ideas are being taken seriously by the high-level political guys and senior civil servants pushing reforms in DFID and elsewhere?


    P.S. Nelo I loved your comment about kids and cakes, and I think you’ve got a great point about nailing straw men – in reality, the formal structures of log frames, project approvals etc often do not even go halfway to describing the real work that practitioners put into managing programmes (unseen in HQs).

  8. Harry

    I do think there is interest at senior levels in how to make DFID more agile (see their recent business process review, for example) though I am not optimistic that they will change enough fast enough.

    My blog post today talks about one practical next step we can take to deal with complexity which is getting a lot of traction in aid agencies: Development Impact Bonds

    I also think we should get together and write a Manifesto for Agile International Development.


  9. If everyone recognises that we live in a complex and changing world, why are we chasing “best practicitis”, and generally behaving like the world is not complex?

    If an organisation is working in an uncertain and changeable environment then it makes sense to collect data more rather than less often. Not only to collect data more often, but also to make sure it is analysed and interpreted. However this takes time and effort. Learning, in the sense of acquisition of new knowledge involves a cost. So it’s not surprising that organisations and people look out for the simple ideas, the simple solutions, which seemed to have worked elsewhere. It is more economical. Less cognitive and communicative effort is involved.

    James March highlighted the tension that is involved years ago (1991), when he talked about the tension between two strategies: Exploitation (of existing knowledge) and Exploration – the discovery of new knowledge. I recommend it. You can fit it here:

    See also this PowerPoint summary:

    Google “James March exploitation exploration” for stacks of other related papers

    Contra Owen Barder’s comment above, cost IS an issue.

  10. Re Owen’s comment “On my way home I was reflecting how impervious the entire group seems to be to the idea that there are things we can and should learn from other disciplines, exemplified by an indifference to mastering basic concepts such the distinctions between “complex”, “chaotic”, “complicated”, “uncertain”, “risky” and “random”.

    How did you come to this conclusion? This sound more like a prior judgement, i.e. a predjudice, rather than something based on evidence. I dont think anyone argued with your proposition that this knowldge was needed, when you did express this view (at least in the plenary meeting). The aphorism that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” comes to mind.

  11. and while I am at it… 😉

    …can we please retire the cake, rocket, child rearing metaphors, they are so over-used and not especially helpful. Most projects involve multiple people working with multiple people i.e. something even more complex than the third “one parent working with one or two children” metaphor.

    Years ago, Chris Langton and others (e.g. Kauffman), who did research on two dimensional cellular automata and other very simple systems models, identified two parameters that make a difference to the amount of order, chaos and complexity: (a) the density of network connections between agents, (b) the amount of agency (or variability) each agent has. Traditional armies are a good example of more ordered structures, being sparse networks with limited agent autonomy.

    Yes, someone else has been reading complexity literature for a while

    1. Hi Rick
      I’m afraid the answer (from me) is no. One of the big problems of ‘complexity thinkers’ in my experience is their delight in, errm, complexity and inability (or at least reluctance) to communicate their ideas to a wider audience. Even talking to NGO types, the cake/rocket/child metaphor gets through and gets nods of recognition and lightbulbs going on in a way describing research about ‘two dimensional cellular automata’ really doesn’t……… If we don’t communicate better, we will lose the big arguments to those who do.

  12. So based on this blog, the comments and my first skim read of Ben’s book, my take is that it is a good summary of stuff on aid, complexity and development that we already know. Nothing new, by the sounds of it so far. Anything truly new, gentlemen?

    And yes, please, let’s give cake, rocket and child a break. We need more real world examples that show that investments or projects or programs cannot be categorised quite so simplistically. Not just short stories, however well told.

    Glad to hear that there is another fan of monitoring, which might finally be getting the attention that it deserves. A small addition having worked on this topic for the past decade, it is about far more than cost. I’ve found organisational and individual capacity at least as problematic for successful adaptation.

  13. I rather think that Doris Lessing had the right take on complexity in her Massey Lecture in the 80s when she said, “there is no such thing as my being in the right, my side being in the right because within a generation or two, my present way of thinking is bound to be found perhaps faintly ludicrous, perhaps quite outmoded by new thinking – at the best something that has been changed, all passion spent, into a small part of a great process, a development.” In “Prisons we choose to live inside” CBC Massey Lectures 1986. We have to be careful not to dismiss ideas that were valid in their time – but times change.

  14. This is just a side-note regarding metaphors and ‘development’.

    I think it would be helpful to remember that development is political, and therefore, think firstly of the context as complex – not the project.
    (Starting out by thinking of the projects as complex is turning reality upside-down and will tempt people to look for short cuts that don’t exist.)

    I haven’t thought long about these but if you want metaphors for the relevant context a project is operating in, my suggestion would be Regent’s Canal / Victoria Falls / Hurricane Katrina. Remind people to be realistic about their capabilities if needed.

  15. Moreover, let’s realise that baking is all we can do (although plenty have attempted on rocket science – Nina Munk’s book comes to mind).
    The issue is to acknowledge (with respect to context) what cakes we can and should bake.

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