Complexity thinking for aid effectiveness

Is aid on the brink of a breakdown or a breakthrough?

Aid on the Edge of Chaos       In its 360 pages, Aid on the Edge of Chaos presents an overview of the troubled state of aid, provides an update of current complexity thinking, and showcases promising applications of complex adaptive systems to child malnutrition, economic growth, peace building, and combating desertification, from rural Vietnam to urban Kenya. The author, Ben Ramalingam, criticizes the aid system for ignoring complexity theory to its own detriment. The term edge of chaos refers to the location on the simple-complicated-complex-chaotic continuum, where complex systems become really adaptive and innovative, or developmental so to speak. The book launch took place in London on Nov. 6, 2013.

aid on the edge of chaos

Biases against complex systems thinking        In 1948, Warren Weaver was the first to outline the urgent need for complex systems thinking to address the many messy problems of the world in economics, politics, and social systems.  However, the new science was slow to evolve, partly as a result of our cognitive and operational biases against it. Ramalingam uses the worldwide smallpox eradication campaign (1967-1979) to show how deeply ingrained these biases still are. Even today, few experts care to acknowledge that the campaign was a success, not so much due to top-down vaccination efforts by the WHO, but mostly by innovative, on the ground adaptation for containment and surveillance.

Positive deviance       Ramalingam uses a case of the operationalization of positive deviance (PD) to demonstrate the power of adaptation. PD builds on principles from the evolutionary branch of complex systems research. These principles were applied to a community-led pilot for dealing with malnutrition in Vietnam. Community volunteer groups were formed, which identified positive deviant children in poor families to identify practices with potential for diffusion. Frequent feeding and preparing small portions of tiny shrimps, crabs, or snails collected for free from the rice paddies were two of them. By the end of the first year, half the children had participated and 80% were rehabilitated. Since then, PD has been used for a wide range of intractable problems.

Complex adaptive systems        Development may be defined as the emergent property of complex adaptive systems (CAS), where CAS are collections of interacting components that react to both their environments and to one another. According to Ramalingam CAS are characterized by: (1) co-evolution instead of top-down specified behaviour; (2) path dependence in inter-relationships instead of ahistorical, independent actors; and (3) dynamics with phase transitions and discontinuities instead of additive, linear, predictable change.

Agent-based modeling         Over the past decades, software has become available for so-called agent-based modelling (ABM). It can be used to study processes of emergence as a result of adaptation. Ramalingam describes a combination of an innovative ABM computer model with a participatory role-playing game, which had its roots in Mali in the early 1990s and was further refined with the aid of semi-literate farmers in northern Senegal. ComMod, as it is known, has successfully been applied in many other places, including Bhutan, where it was used to look at problems of rural watersheds and water sharing.

How to embrace complexity?      During the book launch many questions were raised. Are the current aid staff up to it? (No, there is a serious HR issue. Besides, where did all the anthropologists of the early years go?).  How can complexity in aid be paid for? (By replacing a lot of upfront analysis. By setting aside say 20% of funding for exploratory programmes instead of planned ones. By admitting that many current programmes are failures by design: this is often acceptable to the system as long as the failure takes places conventionally). How can complexity be “sold” to the public and donors? (The audience is already divided in pro’s and contra’s. The pro’s will understand. Donors have no choice).

How to plan for complexity?      Aid on the Edge of Chaos presents a number of ideas for using complexity in aid. Systemic learning, i.e. learning using systems concepts, is one of them. Other ones are conceiving development as network transformation or dynamic change. As said in the previous paragraph: in that case aid has a huge human resource problem. Perhaps because of this Owen Barder (Centre for Global Development and one of the discussants at the launch) suggests that aid programmers need simple rules to deal with complexity. One simple rule for facing complexity is probe-sense-respond. There may be other ways, but if probe-sense-respond it is, then planning could reflect this as follows:

Intervention design for complexity (my adaptation from fig. 5.6 in Developmental evaluation, 2012, Patton)

Intervention design for complexity (my adaptation from fig. 5.6 in Developmental evaluation, 2012, Patton)

Three ways forward           … are: (1) make sure that the part of aid where complexity thinking is not applied indeed doesn’t need it; (2) when aid needs complexity reconceive it in terms of network transformation and dynamic change; and (3) apply the approaches, methodologies, and tools of systems thinking to get a handle on complexity. Remember that in some/many/most/almost all cases: development simply doesn’t stick if it ain’t complex! In those cases simple aid may only get in the way of real development, which is the point of Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid. And common sense isn’t going to save us, as has been demonstrated by Duncan Watts in Everything is obvious once you know the answer.

Two final references       … I liked while doing this piece:


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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One Response to Complexity thinking for aid effectiveness

  1. Reblogged this on HIPPO Perspectives and commented:

    Here is a blog post I just made that may have some relevance to the HIPPO Foundation, too. Good reading and don’t hesitate to comment.

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