A complexity-compliant approach

Toon van Eijk | February 13, 2010
Beyond our control
Nils Boesen says: “‘Strategic’ and ‘complexity’ are nice words. I like them. Being strategic sounds better than being haphazard, and recognizing complexity is comforting when I have difficulties being strategic. It confirms that it is not only my fault, really, but also because of those messy, complex systems out there that are so hard to understand and so far beyond control!”
Nils Boesen describes here fittingly the feeling of many development workers, at least I often feel this way. Although, as a tropical agronomist, I worked more than 20 years at the countryside in Eastern Africa, I still doubt whether and how I can influence the complex and messy process of rural development. It is this feeling of despair, probably, which makes that after every five years or so a new fad in development theory and practice surfaces. Let’s hope that ‘Being strategic in the face of complexity’ is not the next craze that will run out of time and donor’s patience before it can deliver practical results!

Why is soccer complex?
Although complexity approaches are useful and certainly a big improvement over mono-dimensional approaches (such as the single-minded focus on the invisible hand of markets), the question remains ‘how’ to implement them. In this context it is interesting that Nils says that a computer is complicated, but not complex and that soccer, on the other hand, is complex. In other words, why is it that the same soccer team sometimes performs well and sometimes so lousy? This also applies to the top-teams with the most technically competent players, lots of money and facilities. In my view these fluctuating performances are due to the intangible character of human behaviour. Holistic team performance (the whole is more than the sum of the parts) emerges because of the synergetic effects of the interactions between the players. These effects are often elusive and unpredictable and sometimes unexplainable. When the whole is more than the sum of its parts, we say that a team plays very well. When the team is just the sum of the parts, performance is only moderate. What causes then the magic of holistic performance, how does effective and well-timed interaction come about, what causes the synergetic effect of interaction among players, what makes a group of eleven individuals an eleven-headed unit -a true team- rather than just an aggregate of eleven individuals? Successful sportsmen speak of ‘the click of communality’ or ‘a group mind’ (Sheldrake 1989:250).

With regard to, for example, the development process in sub-Saharan Africa the question is how the multiple stakeholders gain a holistic overview, how do they grasp the complex interdependencies at especially the higher levels of integration, how do they gain a systems-perspective, a comprehensive view of the entire system, an inclusive or societal rationality? Six decades of experiences in development cooperation (or aid) show that the use of the discursive intellect alone does not result into an encompassing rationality. I label this the ‘illusion of intellectual holism’ (van Eijk 2010a; Reference 3).

A tipping point
Nils says: “Change emerges by multiple, interconnected feedback processes rather than by grand design … Poverty reduction was the dominant goal [of the MDGs], and aid should be provided in a harmonized manner based on comprehensive plans, cordially agreed between all partners. There was an image of a largely autonomous aid system that was manageable by modern rational approaches and driven by noble intentions … [But] it is not by pushing for more control, more purity of intentions or more money that the crisis of aid will be ‘avoided’. Rather, it will be by identifying more realistic and ‘complexity-compliant’ responses, and thereby make a difference”.
I fully agree with Nils that more planning (as attempted in the Paris and Accra harmonization and alignment agendas), more noble intentions and more money are not going to be the answer to the aid crisis. But I am afraid that when the catalytic role of aid in learning and innovating -at the global, regional, national and local levels- remains confined within the inevitable limitations of the rational, discursive intellect, we will not make much progress. A ‘complexity-compliant’ response that has the potential to generate a tipping point towards more effective aid would be to invest some time in the creation of a more coherent collective consciousness at the global, regional, national and local levels (see Reference 4).

1. Sheldrake R. (1989). The presence of the past. Morphic resonance and the habits of nature. Vintage Books, New York.
2. Van Eijk T. (2010a). Development and Work Ethic in sub-Saharan Africa. The mismatch between modern development and traditionalistic work ethic. Free Musketeers, The Netherlands (to be published at end of March 2010).