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November 6, 2013

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

November 6, 2013

Complexity 101 – part 2: Getting to the So Whats

November 6, 2013
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It’s complexity week on the blog, coinciding with the launch of Aid on the Edge of Chaos today at 5pm UK time (long since full, but beingHarry colour adjusted livestreamed). I’m a discussant, and will nick any clever comments for tomorrow’s review of the book. Meanwhile, the 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.....

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 bycomplexity sign 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 (reviewed tomorrow)  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?


5 comments

  1. Harry, this is an excellent post! Cannot wait to read the ODI paper. We have been waiting far too long to get to this level of translating “complexity” into “how can we make it work for us”. Thanks, and enjoy Nepal! Sander

  2. Thanks a lot Sander. The paper on complexity and management is an attempt to translate the theory into something practical and to try and bring together some varied tools that seem to have been useful. So it is fairly ‘rough and ready’ like our planning one, but hopefully you will find it useful.

  3. Hi Harry, thanks again! Your reasoning provides a simple bridge to the importance of utilisation of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) information and perhaps lessons on change, results and performance on an on-going basis (not only ex ante or ex post). It would be interesting to look some more into the Now What: how to motivate programme managers to adapt , to take lessons on board and by implication to use M&E information? It might be useful to look again at the different types of (M&)E use, such as instrumental, conceptual, process, influence use etc. (Patton, 2008) and consequences of use at different levels individual, interpersonal or organisational (Mark, 2009). What kind of M&E use would assist in promoting adaptation at what level and how, if at all, could this be navigated?

  4. Hi Harry,
    Thanks a lot for a nice write-up. I totally share your views on the irrelevance of already made models to tackle development problems. You see, we are always looking for these models because we misunderstood development right from the start: dev is not actually about solving problems, it is about ATTEMPTS at solving problems of human existence and the COGNITIONS gained through those attempts. However, because the major take that the West has on dev is bureaucracy (don’t forget that these Westerners of today that are developing us are not the Westerners that developed the West and therefore only inherited Western development as expressed by Western institutions), they tended to give a bureaucratic answer to all development questions, hence the the reliance on models. And supported with Western power, the whole development business meant emasculating the so-called underdeveloped peoples because they were denied the opportunity to do (attempt) and learn from doing (cognition). And we shoud not forget the fact that development was launched by the US president Truman in 1949 as an instrument to roll back communism. It was the end of the Cold War that removed the lid over our eyes and made us see development clearly for the first time. For purposes of brevity, I will leave the analysis at this and concern myself with your concluding question which is my current research interest: how do we use all these lessons to improve the delivery of dev? My answer to this is that due to the specifiicty of time and space dimensions in human endeavours, the ultimate solution lies in improving the capability of local folks to solve their own problems because that is the only way for them to develop. Global development cooperation should simply concentrate on using knowledge (call it education) to improve the capability of local folks, local institutions and local leaders to solve their own problems. And this will take a long time. You need more of knowledge and wisdom to solve problems, not ready made models or bureaucracy. Development is inherently innovative but the mental capacities of humans have to be developed to facilitate that. If global development institutions could wean themselves of their vested interests which always stand in the way of development, they must have done great!

    1. Hi Harry, I agree totally with John Emeka Akude that development from whose viewpoint. And so we those in the development business should focus on empowering local people to decide on and develop their own development trajectories (models if you want to call it that way). Good to ignite the debate.

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