Complexity in Development Cooperation

Complex network of ropes
The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) recently published a working paper by Harry Jones, called ‘Taking Responsibility for Complexity’ (Working Paper 330, June 2011).  The text is not an easy read, but makes it up in interesting content.    I created a Concept Map from the text, outlining and connecting its main ideas.  It doesn’t substitute for reading the text and I would recommend giving it a thorough read.  However, it may convince you to read the text and help with its digestion.

Complexity in Development Concept Map (click to enlarge)

Concept Map of ODI Working Paper “Taking Responsibility for Complexity”
The author makes an apt analysis of some problems that result from treating complex situations as simple ones, using assumptions, log-frames and policy cycles.  He hits the mark when he notes that many reporting is quite separated from daily work and that plans, reports and tables tend to be used only for reporting purposes.  Complex situations usually only trigger more in-depth analysis, more elaborate reporting requirements and a tighter watch on indicators.  Local staff flights in a compliance strategy, characterised by risk aversion, instrumental use of tools and a focus on ‘low hanging fruits’.
Planning, monitoring and evaluation (PME) is necessarily a tick-box exercise (to fit in with unrealistic assumptions embedded in the tools) drawing efforts away from the ‘real work,’ to justify projects ex post and explain how everything went according to the plan initially set out (whether or not this was in fact the case). (p.13)
Studies have shown that, in this context, M&E is often carried out to ‘prove not improve’: for example, monitoring activities frequently revolve around reporting on expected indicators as predefined in a log frame, rather than providing real space to look at the unfolding effects and side-effects of an intervention (Bakewell and Garbutt, 2004).
Complex situations are often encountered in education and development contexts.  In Cambodia we link high repetition and drop-out rates to the quality of teaching.  Increasing teaching quality through the introduction of student-centred methodologies will reduce drop-out rates.  Many other factors that affect drop-out rates are not forgotten, but considered as assumptions outside the scope of the programme.
The more difficult the problem, the greater the perceived need for careful planning, intricate assessment and consultation and negotiation with partners and interest groups before anything is done.  Implementation is firmly fixed in advance, with programmes and projects tied to specific activities and outputs that result from extensive, even multi-year  negotiations. Efforts during implementation are then restricted to following a rigid pre-set schedule and plan of activities. (p.12)
But how to deal effectively with complexity?  Assumptions are often outside the scope of small development organisations such as VVOB, even if we would take complexity into account.  Complexity might be an excuse to dodge responsibilities for not reaching goals.  One strategy is to free up resources and time for a wider range of activities that may affect the assumptions such as advocacy.  For example, in Cambodia we have spent considerable time helping the Ministry of Education updating the teacher training curriculum.   Another strategy is to move away from simple, SMART indicators that give the illusion of measuring outcomes and impact of the programme, and move towards ‘principle-based’ and ‘mission based’ monitoring and evaluation (p.27).
The text doesn’t provide a simple recipe to deal with complexity, but rather a set of principles, concepts and case studies that may be useful in certain contexts and are loosely based on concepts of complexity theory.  It doesn’t advocate sweeping away traditional tools and instruments, but recognizes that a combination of tools is likely.
What is clear, however, is that complexity can no longer be swept under the carpet. While there is not yet one comprehensive framework, there is a growing collection of models, tools, and approaches to effectively develop interventions in the face of these multifaceted problems.(…)  Shaping policy will always be a matter or degrees, and a negotiation between bottom-up and top-down structures, between planned and emergent responses and between technical and participatory guidance. (p.21)
Decentralisation is a central ingredient of a strategy in complex situations, but may involve a trade-off:
One aspect is that decentralising tasks within government will often require building capacities at lower levels of organisation – in local government bodies and elsewhere. There may be a ‘chicken and egg problem,’ whereby there is reluctance to decentralise tasks to lower-level units until they have proved their capacity to carry them out, even though it is impossible to do this until decentralisation has actually occurred. One solution is to begin by decentralising simpler tasks for which lower-level capacity is clearly evident or for which the costs of failure would not be severe (Marshall, 2008). (p.25)
However, one major criticism of pilots is that too often they are not allowed to ‘fail,’ and hence they provide less opportunity for learning. The importance of ensuring that you can learn from an intervention is emphasised in Snowden’s concept of ‘safe-fail experiments’ (2010): these are small interventions designed to test ideas for dealing with a problem where it is acceptable for them to fail critically.
A way of handling uncertainty is to make use of collective or distributed cognition. Complex spaces need experts to compete/disagree with each other to increase diversity, rather than a consensus based approach. For emergence we need to force conflict by bringing in different people with different backgrounds. In complex systems we should also bring in safe-to-fail experiments and prevent premature convergence by moving people around into different groups.
Questioning one’s strategy is crucial in achieving long term impacts.  This paper inspires to distance oneself from the strategy we may take for granted too often and open up to alternative approaches. 

One comment on “Complexity in Development Cooperation

  1. […] explicitly writes it implies decentralisation.  His recommendation resembles in the discourse on complexity and development.  Secondly, development interventions should be analysed to what degree they […]

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