Reflections on day one

Lena Mueller | 01 December 2009

Complexity theory is the hottest new thing in town. For the longest time, development organizations have triggered the public to donate money for good causes by posting simplistic stories on large billboards all over town: 'With one Euro a month, you can help Boubacar go to school and help him out of poverty'. Unfortunately, many children in developing countries are still not attending or finishing school. Despite sixty years of development aid, poverty is still a fact of life. No wonder that criticism of development work is mounting. If it is as easy as the advertisements make the public believe, why is there still so much misery in the world?

Dave Snowden’s complexity thinking approach seems to provide a suitable answer. Development does not happen in a linear and pre-planned manner. One Euro from a willing benevolent will not automatically lead to the education of an African child because this child lives in complex systems. This means that local contexts differ and so should the answers to development problems. Every micro-level problem might need different solutions, and solutions are the great unknown. Instead of pre-planning interventions and outcomes, non-governmental organizations should set up safe-fail experiments to test possible ways of tackling a problem and aiding development. So instead of planning change, an organization should focus on the pockets of society where change has already started and support these local change agents. Those experiments that lead to impact should be scaled up, while those that fail should be abandoned for good. This is quite similar to William Easterly’s idea about the planners and the searchers: the planners who pretend to know how development is brought about (take for instance the MDGs) and the searchers who, as the name implies, are searching for the answer through trial and error.

Nevertheless, even with this new complexity paradigm that Dave Snowden advocates very eloquently and convincingly, a number of obstacles need to be surmounted. During the Innovation Dialogue organized by the University of Wageningen (30 November and 1 December 2009), several participants raised the question of whether the current development system is ready to loosen its grip on planning and monitoring for outcome. This is a paradox in itself and shows how NGOs appear to see themselves as victims of the current system instead of, to put it in Snowden’s words, change agents that interact with the system. This also exemplifies the stark link between Dutch development organizations and the government, and might warrant asking whether 'NGO' is still the correct term to use.

Another dilemma of complexity thinking lies in the multitude of theories of change. Desirable change from the viewpoint of Northern (N)GOs might be undesirable and contested by segments of the society in question. Development interventions are political choices and even though organizations might be supporting local change agents, the choice of change agents is laden with the value judgments of donor organizations. So whose change are we talking about? It also has to be remarked that complexity thinking seems to have a number of similarities with Alan Fowler’s concept of Civic Driven Change (CDC), in which many processes of change are endogenous projects or actions initiated by the people concerned (the pockets of society where change is possible). However, Fowler makes a clear distinction between aided and non-aided change, thus implying that at times (N)GOs simply might not have a role to play. Take for instance the situation in Iran and the many brave Twitter users who challenged this year’s elections. It was a truly local process, but might have been undermined if supported by northern money that might easily have been seen as illegitimate.

Finally, Dave Snowden warns that complexity thinking should not be treated as a religion. (N)GOs might be tempted to argue that the reality is too complex to truly grasp which intervention is needed to induce change. While this is true in a way, an organization arguing for complexity should not try to treat the patient with old cures that have not worked, but instead become a searcher for new, experimental and small-scale solutions. This, however, might have to come hand in hand with an overhaul of the way (N)GOs currently work.

About the author

Lena Mueller

Lena Mueller works at GIZ (German Development Cooperation), she completed the Advanced Master in...

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