Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Ben Ramalingam on Complexity and Aid

The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.
That is from my interview with Ben Ramalingam.  Ben is a consultant and writer who is currently writing a book about complexity and aid to be published by Oxford University Press.  I recommend his blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos.  My full interview follows:

Why did you decide to write a blog? 
Perhaps appropriately for a blog on complexity sciences, I started to write my blog through a combination of chance and random events. I was working on a book on complexity and aid, having led an ODI working paper on the same topic, and at a meeting I helped organize in London in July 2009, someone suggested a blog could be a useful focus point between meetings, and I said I would start one, but didn’t do anything on it. 
Then just before the meeting report was published in October, the friend who was working on it called me up and said, ‘so what’s the blog address, Ben, I want to put it in the report!’ And within 60 minutes I had set up the blog, the URL and posted the first piece. So it was very much an unplanned thing, which has started to become more and more important to me as time has gone on and as the readership has grown. 
Do you enjoy it? 
What I really enjoy about the blog is how refreshing it is for someone like me who has spent almost a decade working at ODI on policy and research issues.  But it is also challenging. It is refreshing because you can share ideas as they emerge, see which get traction, get feedback and trigger some debate and discussion, which is invaluable. It is challenging because demands you be transparent about your thinking process from the outset. 
What viewpoint do you provide that other blogs do not?  
As for my viewpoint, well I don’t think it is unique to my blog necessarily, but I hope to provide a different way of looking at and understanding the challenges faced by international agencies. What might make my blog unique in the aid blogosphere is my attempt to do this by drawing on the latest thinking in complexity sciences and testing its relevance for the problems faced by international agencies. There are aid blogs, there are complexity blogs, but I think mine might be the only one that focuses on the intersection of the two. 
Click here to hear more about how Ben got interested in issues of complexity and aid through work on knowledge management and policy processes

Your call your blog Aid on the Edge of Chaos. What do you mean by “chaos”? Why – or how – are we on the edge of it?  
The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico is the leading think-tank on complexity sciences, and they have been pushing boundaries in this area since they were formed in the mid-1980s. Stuart Kaufmann, one of the Santa Fe luminaries - he was one of the early recipients of the MacArthur Genius grants – spent a lot of time trying to understand how organisms evolve in an ecosystem. Their work showed that ecosystems can be in three different states – a solid-like state when it is frozen into a rigid set of relationships, a gas-like phase when relationships are fluctuating chaotically, and an intermediary liquid-like state at the interface between the two, when frozen components of an ecosystem are extending and exploring new possibilities. This is a metaphor for where I think the aid system should be trying to locate its efforts. 
Another way to look at it is to draw on the blog post you wrote a couple of weeks back, that all of us working in the aid system have to hold our beliefs lightly, know why we hold them, but also be open to change them. Aid on the edge of chaos is a metaphor for an aid system that could do exactly this – hold its beliefs lightly. This principle, writ large, will help aid agencies extend and explore new possibilities. Frozen, outmoded beliefs will not help aid agencies adapt to a rapidly changing world.    
Your blog “[explores] complexity sciences in international development and humanitarian aid.” Why is it beneficial to understand complexity sciences?  
The most important thing you get from the complexity sciences is different ways of looking at, thinking about and understanding the world.  In my view this is the most important thing you can have in development or humanitarian aid or in any form of public policy. 
Complexity sciences give us new insights in three broad ways – they help us rethink the nature of systems and how feedback loops sustain or challenge a system; they help us think anew about the nature of change processes as dynamic and unpredictable; and they help us think about the nature of human agency as adaptive agents reacting to each other and evolving new ways of doing things, and self-organising in often astonishing ways. 
So why is this of relevance for aid agencies? My starting point is that international aid has been built on a very particular way of looking at the world, and this continues to dog its efforts. As a senior USAID colleague put it, because of our urgency to end poverty, we act as if development is a construction, a matter of planning and engineering, rather the complex and often opaque set of interactions that we know it to be. 
In his forward to the ODI paper I led on, Robert Chambers wrote that a huge amount of development and humanitarian thinking and practice is still trapped in a paradigm of predictable, linear causality – i.e. is still locked into an engineering mindset, which is maintained by mindsets that seek accountability through top-down command and control. In fact, he argued that in recent years there has been a growing emphasis on mechanistic approaches.
The whole system disguises rather than navigates complexity, and it does so at various levels – in developing countries and within the aid system. This maintains a series of collective illusions and overly simplistic assumptions about the nature of systems, about the nature of change, and about the nature of human actors.
So the end result of all of this is that poverty, vulnerability, disease are all treated as if are simple puzzles. Aid, and aid agencies are then presented as the missing pieces to complete the puzzle. This not only gives aid a greater importance than perhaps it is due, but it also misrepresents the nature of the problems we face, and the also presents aid flow as very simple. 
Instead of engaging with complexity, it is dismissed, or relegated to an afterthought, and the tools and techniques we employ make it easy for us to do this. We treat complex things as if they were merely complicated. A good definition of this difference was provided by the Millennium Ecosystem project, launched by Kofi Annan in 2000. It involves over 1300 experts worldwide, and it provides a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems. And it has distinguished between complicated systems, which can be modeled mathematically, and complex systems, for which there is no mathematical model which can say, if X is the situation then do Y. Sustainability, healthy communities, raising families have all been given as examples of such complex systems and processes. Peacebuilding would be another, women’s empowerment, natural resource management, capacity building initiatives, innovation systems, the list goes on and on. Complexity science pulls back the curtain on these processes and it can force you to think about the world you live in in a different way. 

Click here to hear Ben discuss an application of complexity science to agricultural approaches in Bali. 
There is much more debate about this collective illusion now – just witness the rise in aid blogs and aid snarks and aid transparency initiatives. We are starting to accept that development is not just about throwing money at a problem - although it seems this has to be re-learned constantly. This was given a new angle very recently – at a meeting this week, Bill Gates said that he had been very naïve about the possibilities of the Gates Foundation solving global health issues when he started their programme 5 years ago. And this was after putting almost half a billion dollars in.  

How well do aid organizations operate in complex environments? 
One of the most interesting complexity perspectives is the idea that has come out of Rosalind Eyben’s recent work at the Institute of Development Studies. Ros used to run DFID country offices across Latin America and was also the DFID chief of social development, and her argument is that there are a number of people in aid agencies do deal complex, non-linear, realities on a daily basis, but they do it under the radar, below the wire, away from the watchful eyes of head offices. One of the most common responses I got from the ODI paper was ‘thank you, this explains a lot of what I have been experiencing for years’. People instinctively recognize in complexity sciences a set of ideas that is useful for talking about the challenges aid agencies face. 
But these same people also have to spend a huge amount of time filtering complexity, making their good work fit the hungry machine, to feed what Andrew Natsios has called the aid counter-bureaucracy, which increasingly demands positive numbers and simple narratives. 
People always talk about the challenge of speaking truth to power, the ongoing Wikileaks is just the latest and highest profile manifestation. But in our sector, there may be as much of need to get power to speak truth. Andrew Natsios could only speak out about the complexity of aid, and the idea that measurability was inversely proportional to development relevance – his words, not mine – when he was no longer in USAID. While he ran USAID he couldn’t say that - he perpetuated, perhaps even strengthened - the counter-bureacratic system. Why? There is a real, unspoken, but intensely felt, human cost to living with this level of cognitive dissonance. 
Anyway, rant over. Our collective strengths are that we are already know and understand complexity and the limitations it places on us, in the shadow informal world of our organisations. Our collective weakness is that we aren’t honest enough about it, when we need to be. 
Do you think other sectors (medicine, architecture, etc.) can teach us how to approach complex problems?
There is some fascinating work in other sectors which have some connections – medicine, healthcare, education, conflict analysis, military planning, economics and so on. There can of course be lessons across these sectors. I am not sure ‘teaching’ is the right way to look at it though - the key to my mind is to approach this as an interdisciplinary learning effort - to bring the best people from those other environments to talk to the development and humanitarian community. 
This is partly what a group of us dotted around the aid sector been trying to do over the past few years with a so-called emergent meeting series in various locations around Europe. This has brought people like Ralph Stacey, Dave Snowden and Jean Boulton to run workshops for the development community, providing a range of insights and different ways of engaging with these ideas. I think there is scope for more such engagement, to help re-think some of the critical problems faced in the development sector. Take urbanization, working in fragile states, climate change – any of the real challenges require us to reach outside our usual boundaries. But the starting point has to be to bring different people together. 
A good example is the work being led by Bill Frej, former head of USAID Afghanistan, now Development Diplomat-in-Residence at Santa Fe. He has invited a diverse group – of which I feel very lucky to be a part - from around the world to come together in February to establish a collective dialogue on complexity science and how it might help aid strategies in fragile states. I will be spending some time at Santa Fe before and after – and am excited to learn as much as I can about potentially useful ideas for the aid sector.       

What can the development sector teach other ones?
I think the main lessons are about values and context. One is a positive lesson, one is negative lesson.
The positive one is on values. Values are the reason we get intelligent, passionate people to stay doing jobs at low rates of pay in difficult conditions - the private sector would love to hear more about that, as would every other sector. Aid agency staff stay put because they believe in the organization, its values and what it does. Our values - at their best - act as minimum rules, knitting together disparate offices with a sense of shared purpose, igniting innovation, motivating people to do more with less. 
The negative one is about context, and the importance of understanding it. We have shown time and again, whether it is structural adjustment programmes, or maternal health efforts, or social empowerment, that one size fits all simply doesn’t work. The whole world could do with being reminded of that constantly, I think, especially right now. At the risk of sounding cynical, the development sector has a pretty constant flow of such lessons which sadly is not likely to dry up any time soon. 

Thanks for your time, Ben.  I look forward to more discussions.

Update October 9, 2013:  Ben's forthcoming book is here.