Tying up loose ends, systemically speaking

African population and development challenges

Evidence-based policies     In their introduction to the latest issue of Dounia (the Journal of Strategic Intelligence and International Relations), Jacques Emina and David Shapiro make a case for “integrated, holistic and evidence-based population and social policies” to address the inter-related population, health, and development issues that countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) will face during the 21st century CE. According to recent UN projections, the SSA population will grow from 860 million in 2010 to around 2 billion by 2050, and to 2.3-4.8 billion by the year 2100, with this variation largely dependent on the future course of fertility, which in 2012 stood at 5.1 children/woman on average, while only 20% of married women were using modern contraceptives.

Key linkages     The overall idea is simple: lower fertility –> lower population growth –> considerably fewer or smaller problems in SSA in 2050 or 2100. It seems the authors have selected the rather wide range of 2.3-4.8 billion to show how big a difference lower fertility can make. The 2.5 billion people question is then how to design strategies that incorporate as many of the proven (or ‘evidence-based’ or probable or significant) inter-relationships, contingencies and trends as possible to curb average fertility from 5 towards 2 or 3 children/woman over the course of this century. Issue nr. 7 of Dounia presents 8 articles by 17 international scholars to review studies that shed some light on these relationships.

Concept map     Some people have formidable brains with seemingly unlimited capacity or make do with what limited knowledge they have by putting on a dazzling show. Others, like me, need tools to grasp complex issues. One of the most useful tools that I know of is concept mapping. So, once more I took the liberty to make a relatively simple concept map of the development, health, nutrition, migration, and population patterns in SSA as explained by Emina and Shapiro (please forgive me for any simplifications): concept map population and development policies sub-Saharan Africa 2015-2100

Concept map summary       Current population and development policies fail to address cross-cutting issues related to population growth (population explosion, urbanization, food production, environment), socio-economic conditions (poverty, unemployment, migration, education) and health aspects (maternal and child mortality, nutrition, contraceptive use). The formulation of proper policies is stymied as a result of poor leadership & governance, pronatalism promoted by religions and traditions, and possibly – be it more indirectly – globalization and colonialism. Increasingly, health and demographic surveillance systems have become available to provide the necessary statistical evidence for the formulation of improved population and development policies. These can be particularly effective if they implemented in an integrated, holistic manner.

Loose ends       In my humble opinion, ‘holistic’ means ‘systemically’, e.g. using the systems approach (Willams & Van ‘t Hof, 2014). Reading the Dounia articles and looking at the concept map it seems that the authors may have a more restricted idea of holism. Urbanization, migration and religious or traditional factors do not seem to be well integrated in their mental model. It is hard to deny the importance of these factors when we look at below map. One might even hypothesize a link with conflict, too, especially if one takes Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Niger, East Timor, Uganda, Afghanistan and Somalia into consideration. Countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia, not without conflict and already very densely populated, continue to sustain high fertility rates. Total fertility rate (children per woman)

Systemic policy making       What I suggest is that policy makers ought to avoid taking a narrow holistic, integrated view, but a more comprehensive view. Maybe statistical evidence is not – and never will be – available for all systemic linkages. That doesn’t mean they cannot be factored in. As explained in my other blog posts, the effectiveness of any intervention or policy can be greatly increased by taking values and worldviews into account. These are almost by definition aspects that are hard to measure. Systems thinking, especially the systems approach, is particularly suited for dealing with these aspects and integrating them with evidence-based information. In a way this post is therefore an illustration of my previous post.

New systemic heights     In all this it must be pointed out that it is possible to apply the systems approach at different levels. At its most simple, one could apply it to become aware of the hiatus in current policy making or proposals. At an intermediate level, population and development researchers could refine their research programmes to include value-oriented aspects. At its most complex and most effective, politicians and other policy makers could apply it to engage with each other and policy beneficiaries (women, population in general) to design better, more systemic policies. It is quite possible that the outcome of these design efforts will differ from one country to another. This may provide new opportunities for bringing evidence-based research to a next level in pursuit of ever higher levels of effectiveness.

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2014). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03., p. p. 97). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Retrieved from http://gum.co/wicked

Shapiro, D., & Emina, J. B. O. (2014). Introduction. In Population et défis de développement en Afrique subsaharienne (pp. 10–15). Harmattan. Retrieved from http://www.youscribe.com/catalogue/livres/savoirs/sciences-humaines-et-sociales/population-et-defis-de-developpement-en-afrique-subsaharienne-2480213


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 https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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