Category Archives: development and complexity

Train your gut feeling through continuous learning!

Complex situations resist our analytical capacities, they are unpredictable. In these situations, we cannot base our decisions on data. Hence, our decisions often based on intuition, gut feeling, and rules of thumb. Through continuous learning, we can train our intuition and become better equipped to manage our projects in complex environments. Continue reading

What does ‘systemic’ actually mean?

“We need more systemic approaches!” This claim has gained some traction in the development world. Everybody is talking about how to make development approaches more ‘systemic’. A quick internet research reveals quite a number of results related to development organizations: USAID, USAID, CGAP, GIZGIZ, GIZ, and SDC. Continue reading

About reaching scale

Economic development projects often struggle when it comes to scaling up the impacts of their successful interventions in order to reach a large number of people. Questions about how scaling up is done in a successful way have been asked in connection to various types of development interventions without finding a successful and definitive answer.

More recently, it is often said that scaling up happens quasi automatically or at least with much less effort when the interventions of a project are ‘systemic’. This can happen in economic development projects by actors copying new business models or when new business models in a specific market also benefit connected markets in a positive way. In the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) literature, these phenomena are called breadth and depth of crowding in, respectively. At the same time, the M4P literature acknowledges that crowding in might only in particular cases happen by itself and needs further efforts by the projects, such as for example dissemination of information about the new and successful implementation of business models. It is then anticipated that companies learn about the successes of their peers and will try to imitate them and with that the change will proliferate through the system. Again, it is often stressed that this will only happen if the introduced changes are ‘systemic’. But what does systemic mean in this regard? There are three important aspects at play here. Continue reading

Solutions For Building More Effective Market Systems

This blog post was originally published on the Website of CGAP, an independent policy and research center dedicated to advancing financial access for the world’s poor. The Blog post was part of the Systemic M&E initiative I worked on for the SEEP Network.

Screen Shot 2013-01-14 at 11.07.55There is a controversy brewing among systems and complexity thinkers. Is it useful to define a future goal towards which our initiatives strive? Or is it wiser instead to focus our attention on what we know we can change and trust that this will eventually lead us to a future that is better than any we could have anticipated? While the first feels intuitively right to many development practitioners, proponents of the latter argue that the absence of defined goals and targets may lead to future possibilities that are more sustainable and resilient (and that could not be fully anticipated). So the question is: can we know in advance what the best (or a good) outcome will be? Continue reading

Do we need a goal or is virtue sufficient purpose?

David Snowden has written on his blog about purpose and virtue (more specifically here, here, here and here). I find it a fascinating line of thought, but still cannot  wrap my head around it completely. The basic idea is that in contrast to systems thinking, where an idealized future is identified and interventions aim to close the gap to this future, complexity thinking (or at least the one advocated by Snowden) focuses on managing in the present and with that enabling possible futures to emerge or evolve that could not have been anticipated. Now the latter, the management without a specific goal, of course, asks for a purpose or motivation. Why should we bother, if we don’t have a goal? Continue reading

Owen Barder on Development and Complexity


Owen Barder, Senior Fellow and Director for Europe of the Center for Global Development last week posted a talk online, adapted from his Kapuściński Lecture of May 2012, in which he explores the implications of complexity theory for development policy (the talk is also available as audio-only version on the Development Drums podcast).

The talk tells a persuasive story of what has gone wrong in international development and in the various models of growth it used; that the adoption of the concepts of adaptation and co-evolution allow for much more accurate models; a brief description of complex adaptive systems and complexity theory; and what consequences these insights have for development policy. But these positive turns in development come for a price: we can no longer ignore that we – the developed nations – are also a part of the larger system and that our (policy) actions strongly influence the development potential of poor countries. It is no longer enough to ‘send money’ and experts and think that this will buy us out of our responsibilities towards those countries.

I want to quickly summarize what I think are the key points of Owen’s presentation, starting with what seems to me an obvious point:

Development is not an increase in output by an individual firm; it’s the emergence of a system of economic, financial, legal, social and political institutions, firms, products and technologies, which together provide the citizens with the capabilities to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.

Owen talks about various (economic) models and theories that have neglected this systemic perspective and, subsequently, failed to deliver successes in development. The focus of the economic models shifted over the years from providing capital and investment to technology.

Since this approach of ‘provision’ did not work out, the lack of favorable policies was blamed for hindering the market to achieve its theoretical potential. As a consequence, the Washington Consensus introduced which policies needed to be adopted by a country to be able to grow. As we know, this also did not work out, although the Washington Consensus did, according to Owen, have some positive impacts in developing countries.

After the Washington Consensus, development agencies focused on weak institutions and spent (and are still spending) huge amounts of money on institutional strengthening and capacity building initiatives. The results have been modest. Adding to the difficulties is the fact that it is still not clear which institutions are really important for development.

Most recently, a new book published by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson (Why Nations Fail) promotes politics as culprit of failing development. According to them, the institutions are weak because it actually suits the elite that is in power to run them like this [what an insight …!!!]

All these models that were applied were actually based on traditional economic theory. After seeing all these approaches fail, Owen switches to a new way of describing economic development, based on adaptation and co-evolution in complex adaptive systems.

After making a compelling argument why complexity theory can actually better describe the real economy out there, Owen describes seven policy implications deducted from that insight.

  1. Resist engineering and avoid isomorphic mimicry. The first point mainly stems from the fact that solutions developed through evolution generally outperform design. The latter point mainly implicates that institutions that were mainly built after a blueprint following ‘best practices’ but do not connect to the local environment will have not much use.
  2. Resist fatalism. Development should not be seen as a pure Darwinian process. Smart interventions by us can accelerate and shape evolution.
  3. Promote innovation.
  4. Embrace creative destruction. Innovation without selection is no use. Feedback mechanisms to force performance in economic and social institutions are necessary.
  5. Shape development. The fitness function which the selective pressure enforces should represent the goals and values of a community.
  6. Embrace experimentation. Experimentation should become a part of a development process.
  7. Act global. We need to make a bigger effort to change processes that we can control, for example international trade, the selection of leadership in international organization, etc.

Owen is not telling any news in his presentation, but he succeeds to develop a compelling storyline on why complexity theory is relevant for development and why processes that are based on adaptation and co-evolution much better describe why some countries develop while other seem stuck in the poverty trap.

In my view this is an immensely important contribution to the discussion on how we can reform the international aid system to live up to our responsibility of enabling all people on this planet to live happy and fulfilled lives.

Is this the dilemma of complexity in development?

I have not been around for a while, so my blog has remained dormant. But I have not abandoned it! I will try to keep posting more often again.

This post is about a paragraph of a book that I have started reading recently. The book is called ‘Harnessing Complexity’ and the authors are Robert Axelrod and Michael D. Cohen. The paragraph says:

Analyzing complex systems within [our] framework does not assure the ability to produce specific outcomes but can foster an increase in the value of populations over time.

This statement made me thinking if this is actually the dilemma we face when we want to apply principles of complexity sciences to development – or other real-world cases, for that matter. In development, we need to specify outcomes we want to achieve within a given time frame and we need to build a system that enables us to measure and report about the achievement of these outcomes. Now if the use of frameworks informed by complexity sciences does not target the achievement of specific outcomes but more generally the increase in the value of populations over time (in the case of development that would be what we call ‘well-being’), than it will be hard to sell these projects to donors. We cannot go there and tell them ‘Our goal is to make the world a better place but we don’t have any specific outcomes nor a clear time frame to achieve that goal.’

I do not really have an answer to that dilemma right now. Any thoughts out there?

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?