Lost in Chaos [Verloren in wanorde]: systemic book review

A Dutch diplomat’s view on aid effectiveness

Former Dutch ambassador in Tanzania (2005-2009) and Bulgaria (2009-2013), Karel van Kesteren (1948), has worked in the Dutch Foreign Office for almost 40 years (1974-2013). In 2010 he wrote ‘Verloren in wanorde’ (in Dutch; the title translates as “Lost in chaos”), which describes his experiences in international development co-operation. In this post I will review the book from a systems perspective.

Lost in chaos     … describes the messy organization and ensuing waste in development cooperation due to the lack of coordination among donors. In the end, the author offers proposals for improvement. Van Kesteren first noticed the chaos in the 1980s in Colombia and in the 1990s in Nicaragua and again in the late ‘Naughties’ in Tanzania. From 1999 to 2005 he was posted in The Hague, which allowed him to observe the problems of failed multilateralism and stubborn bilateralism from a more global perspective. Some of the problems were due to strongly fluctuating priorities of successive (Dutch) ministers for development cooperation (e.g. World Bank ‘aficionada’ Herfkens vs. ‘private initiative’ bilateralist Van Ardenne). Another case in point was formed by one-sided American, ‘pro-life’ influences in the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) during the Bush presidency.

Causes of waste     In Van Kesteren’s opinion, the main cause is chaotic and fragmented action by the donor community, which is associated with :(1) overlap; (2) contradiction; (3) counteraction; (4) uncovered areas; (5) unaddressed large-scale problems; (6) aid dependency; (7) market distortions by hidden subsidies; (8) organizational overload in recipient countries; (9) ineffectiveness due to isolated interventions; (10) brain drain towards multiple donor organizations; (11) corruption as a result of complex financial flows; and (12) lack of continuity in donor policies. He estimates that one-third of global development expenditure is going to a loss, i.e. US$ 40 billion on a total of US$ 120 billion/year. These are extra losses, on top of the losses that come with a complex, knowledge-intensive industry, which is what international development co-operation really is.

Paris Declaration       Lost in chaos also describes the complex multilateral and bilateral donor architecture and the rationale of the Paris Declaration . To start with the latter: paris declaration

The Paris Declaration of 2005 aims to improve aid effectiveness by better application of five principles: (1) ownership to avoid aid dependency; (2) alignment with developing countries’ own priorities to facilitate co-ordination; (3) harmonization among donors to avoid the past fragmentation associated with the project approach; instead, aid will pass via sector-wide and programme-based approaches; (4) ‘mutual accountability’ and (5) ‘managing for results’ to make sure there is pro-poor impact (in terms of Millennium Development Goals) and to prevent donor fatigue. So far so good, in theory.

Co-ordination efforts in Tanzania       During his ambassadorship in Tanzania (2005-2009), Van Kesteren was able to see the impact of ‘Paris’ on the ground. On the positive end, he found that the UN agencies were going a long way in co-ordinating their efforts by adopting the OneUN approach and appointing a so-called UN Resident Coordinator. The main problem was with the bilateral activities of the donor countries, including The Netherlands, the United States, Germany and non-traditional donors, such as China, India, and the Arab countries. These not only have their own policies, priorities, projects and programmes, but they are also internally fragmented. Then there are a number of financial institutions (World Bank, other development banks, IMF etc.) and a plethora of Global Funds (to which the Netherlands contribute wholeheartedly) and private philanthropic organizations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to further confound the situation. In short: ‘Paris’ ain’t working.

Recommendations      … in Lost in chaos include: (1) stop aid fragmentation by dividing responsibilities among donors and reducing the number of recipient countries; (2) take a long-term perspective by respecting ownership of developing countries; (3) …. and by decoupling aid funding (“money is fungible”) from providing technical assistance or implementation; (4) stop funding special international funds and initiatives; (5) minimize government co-financing of e.g. Netherlands-based international development organizations such as Novib, Cordaid, ICCO and Hivos and have them focus on civil society strengthening instead of government tasks such as health, education and water supply; (6) for real defragmentation government institutions dealing with international development should focus on countries, not on specific development issues. In brief, the aid industry should shed most of its (western) workforce; (7) the proper organization of aid is an urgent issue, because the annual US$ 100 billion of funds that will soon be released to bring climate change under control must be spent effectively, too.

This is where the review part ends. Below follows my systemic comment.

Are we learning?       Almost 50 years ago, Churchman (1967) wrote: “Just how extensive are the wicked problems, he [Horst Rittel] did not tell us, but one was led to conclude … that the membership in the class of nonwicked problems is restricted to the arena of play: nursery school, academia and the like.” So, if international development co-operation is in the arena of work rather than the arena of play, we must conclude that wicked problems will abound, although we behave as if they don’t: the ‘Paris’ problem is just one example. In Aid on the Edge of Chaos Ramalingam (2013) shows that the problem of wicked problems in development is pervasive and presents a number of ideas for using complexity thinking in aid. Systemic learning, i.e. learning by using systems concepts, is one of them. That’s relatively easy (although not often done), but that’s not all. In many cases aid needs a good handle on complexity to power transformation and systemic change. That’s much more difficult, very difficult indeed. For instance, Van Kesteren talks of cultural changes that are needed in some parts of the developing world. Moreover, if we are talking of systems and complexity thinking, we need transformational change in western thinking as well. It seems we are learning, but we are not yet very good at it. Well, not at all good by a far stretch! Perhaps most of us still don’t have a clue.

Systemic planning     In the 1970s, Churchman (1979) proposed what he called an “anatomy of system teleology”, which is a framework for categorizing the key aspects of systemic planning. In all, he used nine interrelated categories organized in three groups: (1) beneficiary-client, purpose, and measures of performance; (2) decision-maker, resources, and environment; and (3) planner-expert, implementation knowledge, and guarantor (ultimate guarantee of success). It is the interplay (or ‘unfolding’) between the categories that make this approach (a central part of the so-called ‘systems approach’) so useful. On the last pages of Lost in Chaos the author wonders: how much, for what, and how? It would seem we can link these simple questions to Churchman’s categorical groups. ‘How much?’ is then about the second of Churchman’s groups, the category of resources (i.c. funds) in particular. Note that in that group we also find the environment, i.e. the very complex environment of developing countries (natural degradation, corruption, cultural issues etc.) and, of course, the decision-makers: are they the donor country governments, their agencies, their intermediaries or the recipient country governments etc.? ‘For what’ is definitely about the first group, where we find purpose, but also the question of who is the beneficiary-client (the poor, the governments of the poor, the donor countries’ exporting industries etc.)? These are interesting ‘unfolding’ questions that could be answered using a systems approach. The fact that Van Kesteren ‘incidentally’ brings them up and does so at the very end of his book seems – to me – to point to the usefulness and importance of Churchman’s systems approach.

One final question      For a systems approach to work well, one needs a messy situation, a mismatch between what is and what might, could or ought to be. And a diverse group of stakeholders with contrasting or opposite perspectives of what should be done. The more important the topic to them or you, the better (for selecting a issue, see also http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/wicked.pdf#page=16). In the case of development aid, it is not difficult to find problems. The first queston then is: how would we formulate the issue so that we know from which end we can start addressing it? Van Kesteren’s key concern is that the implementation of the Paris Declaration is failing and seriously so, at the cost of a dramatic US$ 40 billion a year, soon to become US$ 75 billion, not counting the incalculable cost of dehumanizing poverty and not being able to keep climate change more or less under control. So, the problem situation may well be this: We are very concerned about the failure of making international development efforts effective in terms of the Paris Declaration. Saying, as Van Kesteren does (and importantly so!), that the recommendations of the Paris Declaration need to be implemented is not enough. Something more is needed. Something systemic perhaps? But remember this: other initial formulations of the problem situation could be agreed upon. That, too, is part of the systems approach.

One final suggestion      Thinking through the implications of the need for systemic intervention design and inquiry in relation to the Paris Declaration is a massive multi-stakeholder task, so I will constrain my hybris and leave that open for the moment, but not without a final suggestion: the aid industry should facilitate adaptive learning and develop (or design or apply) approaches that are better suited to complex and unstructured (‘wicked’) problems.  In all this, beware of deception: if the world’s development organizations and institutions succeed in mustering the will and courage to do this, it should not result in a new set of best practices or blueprints. Instead, we should content ourselves if it opens our eyes to look the complexity of systemic problems squarely in the face in all their various aspects and from multiple perspectives. After gaining a better insight in each other’s´ motivations, assumptions and world views, the necessary wisdom may emerge among the stakeholders for battling out effective ways to save a huge chunk of the annual US$ 40 billion now being lost. And there is an added bonus: the same wisdom could be applied at the lower levels of development aid and to policy making or problem solving in general, wicked problems being the universal beasts that they are.

P.S.      It is argued by some (e.g. Severino and Ray, 2010) that the Paris Declaration of 2005 is overly based on a now obsolete model, the coordination of traditional aid by bilateral and multilateral donors. Today, aid is increasingly provided by civil society, citizens, companies, single-issue multilateral funds and new donors like China and Brazil, who are not members of the OECD. Returning to the old model is an illusion, as this would be denying social reality. This criticism is disingeuously adopted by the (Dutch) Advisory Council on International Affairs (2010) when it claims that the Paris option of “setting up an enormous coordination mechanism for aid – is expensive and threatens to become an end in itself.” That’s not what Van Kesteren had in mind and I doubt that he was listened to very well. The same applies to a contemporary report by the (Dutch) Advisory Council on Government Policy (WRR) that was co-authored by the last so-called Minister of Development Co-operation, the opinionated Mr. Ben Knapen. These last two reports suggest a “temporary networks” solution, which in practice will be tantamount to a laissez-faire, “business as usual” mode of operation or worse and doesn’t do justice to the totality of recommendations by Van Kesteren.

Churchman, C. W. (1967). Guest editorial: Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B–141–142. Retrieved from https://punkrockor.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/wicked-problems-churchman-1967.pdf

Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. See http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/2616232 (or search for relevant posts in this blog)

Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books. See http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/4835242

Kesteren, K. van. (2010). Verloren in wanorde : dertig jaar ontwikkelingssamenwerking, een persoonlijk relaas. Amsterdam: KIT Publishers. See: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/613217167

F. Korthals Altes et al. (2011). The Post-2015 Development Agenda: The Millennium Development Goals in Perspective. The Hague: Advisory Council on International Affairs. Retrieved from http://www.beyond2015.org/sites/default/files/THE POST- 2015 DEVELOPMENT AGENDA.pdf 

Ramalingam, B. (2013). Aid on the edge of chaos: rethinking international cooperation in a complex world. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. See http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/855703153 (See also my post with a book review)

Severino, J.-M., & Ray, O. (2010). The end of ODA (II): the birth of hypercollective action. Center for Global Development Working Paper. Washington D.C. Retrieved from http://international.cgdev.org/sites/default/files/1424253_file_The_End_of_ODA_II_FINAL.pdf 

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2014). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03.). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Available from: http://gum.co/wicked (or find more information on this workbook in this blog)


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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One Response to Lost in Chaos [Verloren in wanorde]: systemic book review

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