Newton v Complexity: Robert Chambers on competing aid paradigms
“Today we can see two broad paradigms at work in international development. On the one side are Neo-Newtonian practices – those processes, procedures, roles and behaviour which emphasise standardisation, routines and regularities in response to or assuming predictabilities. On the other side, we can see what I call adaptive pluralism, which demands creativity, invention, improvisation and originality in adapting to and exploiting change.
The diagrams below build suggest some of the ways in which different elements of each paradigm are mutually reinforcing.
Elements in a Paradigm of Neo-Newtonian Practice
Elements in a Paradigm of Adaptive Pluralism
There are two points to make. First, it is not an either-or. These ways of thinking about the world need to co-exist in a much healthier manner than they do currently. Rosalind Eyben has written about how the formal, reductionist side of the aid system often overlays the adaptive side of the system, resulting in cognitive dissonance. It must be possible to get a better, more honest, and realistic, balance between the two.
Second, and to build on this, establishing a better balance needs to be grounded in the challenges we face right now, otherwise it is likely to be abstract and meaningless. Let me ask for suggestions of approaches, things we know that can be done better, where we might attempt paradigmatic win-wins. Maybe it is about furthering the results agenda through participation and local ownership. Perhaps it is developing more socially grounded alternatives to the logical framework. Maybe it is about how large databases and social networks can be developed in tandem in order to enhance aid transparency. Perhaps it is about how uncertainty and context can be better addressed within aid bureaucracies. In the wider world, areas come to mind where bridging the paradigms may be increasingly essential: climate change, urbanisation, HIV-AIDS, and the link between farming and animal health immediately come to mind.
However, here my own prejudices have to come to the fore. There is little doubt in my mind that the neo-Newtonian paradigm has become more and more dominant in development action, if not development thinking. It exerts a powerful influence – for better or for worse – on the way much of the system works. For balance, we need a countervailing pull. For the paradigmatic win-wins which I touched upon earlier to be recognised and acted upon, we need to understand better how adaptive pluralism can add value to development efforts, and how it can be accorded the status it deserves.”