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?

2 thoughts on “Is this the dilemma of complexity in development?

  1. Dr. Shawn Cunningham

    Hello Marcus.
    No need to apologize for taking a well deserved break. I am still trying to get my mind around some of your earlier posts!

    Well, I like that quote from Axelrod and Cohen. Don’t despair! Ignoring complexity in development is most likely to also result in an inability “to produce specific outcomes but can foster an increase in the value of populations over time”.

    In development projects we have often ignored our complex context. In the past we have convinced donors (and ourselves) that we can do some specific things and we can achieve some specific results – and then we often could achieve these targets in a sustainable way.

    The reason why the complexity dialogue is so important for the development field is that it confronts us to be honest about the past, and also more careful about our approaches and promises in the future. We are also challenged in that we have to somehow find a compromise between “pre-determining rigid activities and indicators during programme design based on a limited diagnosis” and “allowing a programme manager to be completely responsive to the complex context with sufficient control over resources”.

    For me the big question is what kind of “programme managers” we will recommend be deployed, and how much resources do we make available to them.

    Lastly, it is not just us consultants asking these questions. Many donors themselves are asking these same questions. I can imagine the torment that some aid policy makers must be experiencing at the moment!

    1. Marcus Jenal

      Dear Shawn, thanks for your reply. I agree that we have to find a compromise between predetermining plans and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, between accountability and flexibility. And I am happy that this dialogue is taking place and is actually getting more and more prominent. I am currently involved in an initiative to foster the dialogue between practitioners and with donors, but more on that in a separate post.


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