Monthly Archives: April 2012

Some observations on wisdom and intuition

Today I came across two texts, one was on wisdom and another one on intuition. I remembered a third text on intuition that I read some time ago. The observation of these three texts seem very interesting form a systems thinking perspective.

The first text is from The Economist magazine from April 7th. In the Science and Technology section one article writes on ‘Age and wisdom’ and asks the question ‘Older and Wiser?’ (the article is available online here). According to the study the article writes about, ‘Americans get wiser with age. Japanese are wise from the start.’ Not the differences between Americans and Japanese were what interested me, but the indicators the scientists choose to measure wisdom:

The assessors scored participants’ responses on a scale of one to three. This attempted to capture the degree to which they discussed what psychologists consider five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.

For me it was interesting to read those criteria because they resonate pretty well with what we think is a smart way to work in systems. So, are systems thinker wise people?

The second text I want to quote here is from Donella Meadows’ book ‘Thinking in Systems’, which I finally opened today to start reading it. Donella wrote in her book:

Modern systems theory, bound up with computers and equations, hides the fact that it traffics in truths known at some level by everyone. It is often possible, therefore, to make a direct translation from systems jargon to traditional wisdom.

On the next page, she continues:

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, Western society has benefited from science, logic, and reductionism over intuition and holism. Psychologically and politically we would much rather assume that the cause of a problem is ‘out there’, rather than ‘in here.’ It’s almost irresistible to blame something or someone else, to shift responsibility away from ourselves, and to look for the control knob, the product, the pill, the technical fix that will make a problem go away.

Several problems, she continues, such as poverty, hunger, or environmental degradation have not gone away in spite of the analytical ability and technical brilliance we have developed.

This is because they are intrinsically systems problems – undesirable behaviors characteristic of the system structures that produce them. They will yield only as we reclaim our intuition, stop casting blame, see the system as the source of its own problems, and find the courage and wisdom to restructure it.

Intuition again. And wisdom.

Now the third text that came into my mind when reading the two texts above is a reflection by Steve Jobs about his journey to India in 1974/75, written down by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs’ biography:

Coming back to America was, for me, much more of a cultural shock than going to India. The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic; it is learned and is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

I cannot really put any conclusions here. For me, it is interesting to think about such things as wisdom and intuition and how it helps us to shape systems. But I guess it is also difficult to put it down in writing. It should be intuitive, after all.

Robert Ricigliano: Making Peace Last

I just finished reading an excellent new book by Robert Ricigliano titled ‘Making Peace Last. A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding’. Though it might come as a surprise to some of you that I am interested in peacebuilding, I have to say that I was mainly reading the book because it describes an approach to peacebuilding based on complexity theory and systems thinking. One of my big goals is to have such an approach for a more generalized audience and therefore Ricigliano’s book proved to be a big treasure trove for me. I have used systemic analysis methodologies before and Ricigliano’s book added some important insights and gave me some tips on how to further improve my methodology. Here’s a link to the homepage of the book:

I want to write a brief review on Ricigliano’s book here and might later pick out some of the interesting aspects he touches upon.

Ricigliano’s book is intended as a guide for people working in peacebuilding to make their interventions more effective and sustainable. In the first part of the book, Ricigliano introduces the basic principles of systemic approaches and complexity and elaborates on why they are better able to achieve real and sustainable changes. Based on his work and with a rich background of peacebuilding and system/complexity literature, Ricigliano develops a framework for systemic peacebuilding called the SAT model.

Part 1 starts out with the basic question of why we are not doing better in peacebuilding nowadays. For Ricigliano, one of the main reasons is the fact that the energy of peacebuilding work is disbursed in hundreds of different directions while the myriads of activities are not guided by an underlying grounded theory or overall strategy of change. To change this, Ricigliano sees as the most urgent task of the peacebuilding community to confront the micro-macro paradox. He describes this paradox as failure of the many programs, diverse in nature and particulars, which are successful measured by their own ability to achieve immediate program objectives at local (micro) level, to lead to systemic (macro-level) change.

Indeed, this realization is not only true for the peacebuilding community, but in my eyes for most of the development community.

As a remedy to the micro-macro gap, Ricigliano proposes a holistic approach, that goes beyond peacebuilding in the narrow sense and includes the whole development and humanitarian fields, which need to be combined under one grand strategy. Development, according to Ricigliano, is still to sector-focused with separate goals, approaches and jargon. I very much agree with this point in Ricigliano’s analysis as I have pointed this out again and again in my work. Unfortunately, however, Ricigliano in my view fails to deliver very much on this particular point in his book by again focusing it specifically on peacebuilding without explicitly including many points of contact with other disciplines.

An interesting question Ricigliano poses in this regard, though, is whether peace can serve as a supraordinate goal. He identifies the need for this question in the fact that development workers from different fields fail to agree what to call their common concern. Ricigliano identifies, however, a general consensus that various practitioners are striving for something more than economic growth, rule of law, poverty reduction, or war crimes prosecutions and labels this, following two researchers that did some extensive work in Afghanistan, Peace Writ Large (PWL). He goes on:

For peace to serve as the supraordinate goal of diverse practitioners, it must be redefined so as to avoid utopian critiques or a trade-off between peace and justice. In this regard, consider the following definition:

“Peace is a state of human existence characterized by sustainable levels of human development and healthy processes of societal change.”

I kind of understand the search for a supraordinate goal for all development practitioners. But then again I am not sure if one single supraordinate goal would bring us any further in working in complex adaptive systems. It is a bit like the question for the meaning of life. The supraordinate goal implies that there is an ideal state of a system where it is in complete equilibrium and fulfills the vision formulated in our goal. In my view, this goes against the fundamental basics of complexity theory itself, which basically says that the only systems in a stable equilibrium are dead systems. But I guess that’s rather a detail.

Ricigliano advocates for a shift of mind towards systemic peacebuilding. He introduces the basic aspects of complex systems, i.e., the interaction and relationships among parts, the interconnectedness of parts, the feedback and dynamics, and emerging patterns. He differentiates between ‘stepping in’, i.e. the analysis of the parts, their interaction, relationships and interconnectedness, feedback and dynamics, and ‘stepping back’.

The practice of stepping back from the parts far enough to see patterns or wholes is a way of incorporating lots of complexity yet still yielding a manageable and useful narrative.

With his considerations on systemic approaches, Ricigliano develops a ‘systemic theory of peacebuilding’ based on the three-part model of general system change developed by Daniel Katz and Robert Kahn. Katz and Kahn identified three major components of complex social systems: norms, values, and roles. By using other references from the literature on systemic changes and his experiences in peacebuilding, Ricigliano redefines the three elements to use them as a framework for systemic change in the peacebuilding context as follows:

  • Structural: This refers to systems and institutions designed to meet people’s basic human needs.
  • Attitudinal: This refers to shared norms, beliefs, social capital, and intergroup relationships that affect the level of cooperation between groups or people.
  • Transactional: This refers to processes and skills used by key people to peacefully manage conflict, build interpersonal relationships, solve problems collaboratively and turn ideas into action.

He calls this the structural, attitudinal, and transactional (SAT) model. All three levels are interconnected and for systemic and lasting change to happen, change must take place at all the three levels. Ricigliano sees the transactional domain as a lever for driving systemic change since it is seen as the most accessible place to start a systemic change process.

I am wondering if these three domains hold also true as framework for systemic change in other fields than peacebuilding. According to Ricigliano’s logic they should, since he defines peace or ‘Peace Writ Large’ as ultimate goal of all development initiatives. I would be interested to test this on a real world example, such as in economic development.

At the end of part 1 of the book, Ricigliano asks what would be needed to promote the SAT model. Here, he points out one aspect that I find profoundly important:

The means used to promote a certain goal must be consistent with the goal itself.

This means to make the peacebuilding system more systemic, we have to look at the peacebuilding system as a complex system and adapt our strategy accordingly. Ricigliano identifies two ‘Systems Shifts’ that need to be considered for the peacebuilding system to be more systemic:

Systems Shift 1: From Solutions Focused to Learning Focused. The most important realization for me is that we should not see a system as ‘broken’ and look for a solution (an engineering approach) but we have to realize that a system is what it is. A system cannot be broken, it always works. Maybe not as we would like it to, but it works. Seeking solutions to fix problems, as Ricigliano points out, gives the appearance that situations can be controlled and that we can thus impose our will on them. But complex systems cannot be controlled and hence, there is no way we can ‘fix’ them. The key thing is to work with, not against, the energy and motion in the system.

The response of the SAT model to this insight is to propose a new type of project cycle based on ‘planning, acting, and learning’ (PAL). Hence, Ricigliano promotes the fact that we need to analyze the system and try to learn from it as we go to find the best-adapted means to bring about change in the system. As a consequence, our projects need to be transformed from problem solving projects into learning projects.

Instead of monitoring and evaluation processes that force agencies into pursuing predetermined outcomes and punishing ‘errors’, learning requires peacebuilders to be ‘error embracing’.

Systems Shift 2: Linear Change (Adding Up) versus Nonlinear Change (Interacting Out). Ricigliano points out that many programs are still operating under the erroneous notion that change happens through a linear process and program impacts will add up to long-term systemic change. Alas, reality teaches us otherwise.

In systems, change to an element in the system or to a relationship between two elements causes a chain reaction that spirals out from the initial intervention in the system. (…) So, rather than adding up, changes in a system ‘interact out’, meaning that they cause multiple and often unpredictable ripple effects throughout the system.

The response of the SAT model in this case is to build what Ricigliano calls ‘Networks of Effective Action’, realizing that no one organization can affect an entire system on its own.

Here again, Ricigliano also gives practitioners outside the peacebuilding field rich material and insights that can help us to make our work more systemic and in the long run more effective.

Having introduced the basic understanding of systemic change models and his SAT Model, Ricigliano introduces in the second part of his book a very elaborate methodology for systemic peacebuilding assessment and planning that is largely based on the systems thinking school. In Ricigliano’s words, part 2 of the book takes up the challenge of how to listen to a system to plan interventions meant to nurture systemic change. This part also contains vast resources not only for people working in peacebuilding but also for practitioners in other fields. The methodology introduced by Ricigliano has a big similarity to a methodology I have used for assessing systems and potentials for change, lately in an assessment that I did in Kosovo. Nevertheless, with his rich background of experiences from all over the world, Ricigliano makes the methodology very tangible and I could still add a lot to my understanding of how to use it.

In part 3, after having introduced us to how to listen to the system, Ricigliano maps out methods to catalyze systemic change. Compared with the two other parts, this third part is most specifically tailored for peacebuilders and in my view less accessible and less directly useful for other practitioners. You can feel that Ricigliano is on his thematic home-turf here. The introduced methodology mainly focuses on negotiations between conflict parties and how to best organize, design, facilitate or support these negotiations in a way that is compatible with the SAT model. Nevertheless, I could gain more insights in this part that can be applied to other actors, not only combatants in certain African or Asian countries, such as businessmen.

All in all, a really well written book that describes in many details a methodology to approach peacebuilding in a more systemic way, based on a rich backpack of experiences that Ricigliano brings along from his work in the peacebuilding field. The methodology can easily be adapted to other areas of intervention, such as economic development or the development of social services, keeping in mind that the goals that all development people share are not that far apart: to create a better world for all people.

Excellent blog post on Aid on the Edge of Chaos

I would like to point your attention to an excellent guest post on Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos Blog by Frauke de Weijer, policy and fragile states specialist at the ECDPM think tank on the use of complexity theory in state building and fragility.

There are two points I particularly want to point out. One is Ms. de Weijer’s comment on fragile states being wicked problems, when she says that

This is not to say that applying a different approach, i.e. a ‘complexity theory approach’, will fix the problem. Wicked problems are not particularly ‘fixable’, which is exactly why they are wicked in the first place!

This resonates well with the basic insight of the failure of a ‘problem-fix’ approach or engineering solution when working in complex systems. Systems cannot really be broken, they always work well for someone, otherwise there would not be forces that try to hold the system in place as it is.

The second thing Ms. de Weijer mentions is one of the starting points into working in fragile states she identifies:

Societal change is painful, takes time, is unpredictable and does not follow well-established paths. For external actors engaging in such settings, conflict-sensitivity is key, but the principle of doing no harm is naïve. It is a matter of mitigating these risks to the best of our ability.

I agree with Ms. de Weijer in as far as I don’t thing that in a complex system with its high number of interdependence, a so called ‘do no harm’ approach really works. As soon as we intervene in a system, we change it and since complex systems are inherently unpredictable, we will also not be able to predict whether we will do any harm or not. And as a link to the earlier posts on targeting vs. holism (here and here), sustainable and long-term change might first be painful to our ‘beneficiaries’, but in the long run be the better solution as a forced ‘do no harm’ intervention that circumvents the actual problem.

There are also some interesting comments of other readers added to the post.

Boosting development effectiveness: what would need to change?

In this post I want to write about a discussion paper that I have been working on in collaboration with Lucho Osorio, facilitator of the Market Facilitation Initiative (MaFI), which is an initiative of the SEEP Network (more about MaFI, more about SEEP). The paper can be found here on Slideshare.

The paper tries to answer the question What do we need to do differently if we want to make development – and specifically economic development – more effective and inclusive? The basic assumption is that if we facilitate the market systems to change from within rather than through a number of direct and distorting interventions, we have better and more sustainable results. Therefore, the title of the paper reads:

The MaFI-festo: Boosting development effectiveness through facilitation of inclusive markets and private sector engagement.

The paper is based on an extensive online discussion in the LinkedIn group of MaFI as well as a number of face-to-face meetings. Although not explicit, the basic principles of complexity theory had a strong influence on the discussions and consequently on the contents of the paper.

The MaFI-festo will build the basis of a 2012 MaFI-initiative called ‘the MaFI-festo dialogues’. The goal of the dialogues is to “build a process of trust, dialogue and collaboration between inclusive market facilitators and donors to improve or change the principles, rules and procedures of international aid (or international cooperation).”

The six section of the MaFI-festo discussion paper represent the basic fields of action within the the process.

1 Guiding principles. Collaboration, engagement and practicality are the basic aspects underpinning the design and implementation of the MaFI-festo. In the process we want to include donors, practitioners and other key stakeholders in a process that is guided by trust, dialogue and mutual understanding.

2 Changing the way we work. This section spells out the basic principles of how to improve ones work in project implementation, i.e., ‘focus on root causes, not symptoms’, ‘focus on resilience and adaptability of the system’, ‘invest more in field-based, pre-design phase’, and ‘test and promote co-volutionary experimentation’.

3 Flexibility and accountability: the ultimate balancing act. Taking into account both the need for flexibility when working in complex systems and the need for accountability to the donors and further up parliaments and tax-payers, but also towards receiving countries.

4 Building capacity: speeding up the paradigm shift. This section promotes both the establishment of capacity building systems instead of individual training courses as well as the need for the recognition of capacity building as development strategy instead of ‘overhead’ costs.

5 Building up the evidence: what and how we measure. This section advocates for a monitoring system that focuses on structural and deeper, systemic change instead of single universal indicators such as increased income.

6 Activities. This section lines out a number of activities that can be started based on the MaFI-festo discussion paper.

For me, the MaFI-festo incorporates an important move towards a development system that is more conscious of the system it works in and tries to work with the system instead of against the system. It also communicates the realization that this represents a paradigm shift and will need a lot of common efforts of the many actors of the development system itself to be realized.

It is my interest to further contribute to this process in the hope that I can contribute to positive change that leads to an improved way of how we interact with the people in developing countries.

Targeting vs. holism: reply to some comments

I want to pick some of the comments to my last post and reply to them. But instead of replying in the comment thread, I decided to write a new post.

First of all, I want to take up Shawn Cunningham’s point (who is actually the friend I was talking to who inspired the original post and he also writes a blog I like). He rightly points out the importance of the dampening feedback loops that often render our interventions toothless or return the system to its earlier stage after the project has phased out. I see this as one of the major shortcomings of current approaches in development that call themselves ‘systemic’. Just to take an example of such an approach I know fairly well: the ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’ (M4P) approach, which is highly praised for being systemic. Although I think the approach is a valuable step towards a more systemic approach, I see many shortcomings from a systems thinking perspective. On the positive side, M4P promotes the notion of seeking change from within the system by introducing facilitation of system actors to change as the main intervention tool. Although the facilitation approach encourages practitioners to experiment with small interventions and learn from the system, the M4P approach does not include the analysis of feedback loops. Hence, many dynamics of the system, especially if they are outside the economic sphere, are not systematically assessed. They might be spotted if the implementation team is tuned to unintended effects of the interventions or effects of the system on the interventions, but that is probably the exception.

The second point I want to take up from the comments is Shawn’s point about the interest of donors and other interest groups. I think it is important to realize that the aid industry is a complex system in itself and interests are shaped by complex interactions within and between donor agencies, which usually are large bureaucratic organizations as well as by interactions between politics in and between donor countries and with ‘receiving’ countries. And there are not only the donors, there are also other interest groups that have a big influence on the aid system. So if Shawn talks about the interest of donors to have quick wins with their perceived beneficiary populations (‘the poor’, women, etc.), this is part of the dynamics of this particular system. What I mean to say is that we should not necessarily condemn the donors not to understand the need to use systemic approaches to effectively and sustainably improve the station of the poor (which is, however, probably also true to a large extend), but that they are trapped in the dynamics of their own systems.

This is a nice example, by the way, of the fractal nature of complex systems. You can always zoom further out and you will find another complex adaptive system of which the system you were looking at in the first place is only a part, i.e., the economy in which the poor participate – or also zoom further in for that matter, and you will look at the dynamics between and within poor households which are not less complex. Of course, they are in effect all part of the same system but we put some boundaries in order to delimit systems for our analysis.

The last point mentioned by Shawn about the change we want to see brings me to the topic of values that we have and the question of how far we can allow ourselves to impose our values on the system we are working with. I see this as a very delicate discussion and I am not very clear myself how to answer the question. I was discussing this question recently with another friend and he was pretty clear that we of course want for example to free women from oppression, from being stoned because their husband commits adultery, and of course we want to promote the universal declaration of human rights. But then again also in this case we have to find a way to make these changes happen from within the system and not impose these values on the system. To achieve social change is probably one of the most difficult things and the one where the systems are probably most averse to change.

An interesting aspect I want to take up from Alexis Morcrette’s comments is the problem of having multiple goals within economic development projects. He makes the following example:

(…) (1) you want the system to be more competitive as a whole (competitiveness of the system), (2) you want the participation of traditionally marginalised people in the system to be improved, in absolute numbers participating and in terms of the benefits they derive from the system (call this inclusion of the system), and finally (3) you want the participation of these traditionally marginalised people to be more self-determined/empowered (called this, for lack of a better word, equitability of the system).

Alexis identifies a need for trade-offs between these goals. This resonates with a point made by Shawn:

The third dimension is time, and it is dynamic. Here in South Africa, there is the fear that a particular group other than the intended beneficiaries would benefit in the short term, therefore paralysis ensues. Rather do nothing than tip the scale in favor of the wrong group. But this time dynamic also have a longer term dimension. Sometimes the change will happen, it will just take much longer. Or it may happen over time because some other conditions are met. Or maybe it almost happens, but because on (sic) or two factors are weak the system reverts to an earlier state. We have to remember that in most systems theories there is a recognition of the importance of the starting state of the system AND the timing of the change.

Put in other words: in the short term, there might be a need for a trade-off to be made between the three goals if we want to see changes in all three of them – they might even be mutually exclusive because – as Shawn puts it – in order to achieve one goal the scale in the other aspect needs to be tipped in favor of the ‘wrong group’, for example bigger businesses. But if we take a longer term perspective, all of these goals might be reached to a satisfactory extend. The question is: do we have a long enough breath and the courage to take the necessary steps?

Holism vs. targeting in complex systems

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend about the question whether any form of targeting of our interventions towards a specific group of people or topic is already limiting our ability to come up with solutions that are fully adapted to the system. The concrete issues we were talking about were the poverty orientation of the development sector in general and as an example the focus on women economic empowerment as a form of development in particular. The hypothesis we had is basically that if we enter a system with predefined clients (e.g. ‘the poor’ or ‘poor women’) in the first place, our solution will always by biased in order to directly and quickly cater those clients’ needs. This argument goes into the direction of the silo thesis, i.e., that development organizations basically have their topics, such as human health, water and sanitation, markets, etc., and that, regardless of the system or problem they encounter, their solution always has something to do with their topic.

In contrast to that, systems theory tells us that we need to take a holistic view on the system and not limit ourselves to one specific domain if we want to really understand how a system works. So if we only look at the problem of how women get their water and come up with the solution of digging a well in each village, we might miss the whole actual problem women are facing. As a consequence, the entry point for us to support the women might be somewhere completely else, for example local governments, traditional structures, etc.

Then again, what we as development practitioners want to achieve – be it in the short or the long run – is to reduce poverty and also to improve the situation of women, which, in many instances, suffer an even more dire fate as their male counterparts. Not to talk about the incentive structure of the funding of international development which clearly favors quick wins with specific target groups.

I did some more thinking on the topic and I guess the important differentiation we need to make is between what we look at during the system analysis and what we define as target state of the system. In the first, i.e., the system analysis, we have to be open and holistic and take into account all kinds of influences. The only thing we need to do is to set the appropriate system boundaries to frame the system and the level of aggregation that is useful for our work. But only once we have analyzed the system, we should hone in on our target variables, e.g., the poverty or the economic empowerment of women and see how we can influence the system so these variables change in a way that seems favorable to us.

Hence, holism and targeted interventions don’t have to be a trade-off per se. The trade-off, in my view, starts when we are designing the interventions. At that point we have to choose between interventions that have a short-term effect on our target variables or we have to appreciate the dynamics of the system and choose interventions that work with the system. The latter often have the price tag of only showing results after longer periods of time – although that is not necessarily always the case.

I’m curious about your thoughts on this topic and whether it makes sense what I am writing here.