Get practical

Development Policy01 Dec 2009Pepijn Jansen

As the second – and last – day of this conference is coming to an end, people are discussing in small groups how to practically deal with complexity. What will they take home? What will they be doing with all the ideas that emerged, the recommendations given and the questions raised?

That was today’s main theme – getting practical. We started off with an interesting keynote from John Young, who gave us some insights into how policy processes can be seen through the complexity lens. First of all, policy is not linear and not based on rational processes. Rather, policy makers and politicians like to make things simple, because simplicity and certainty sell (I can easily think of a number of politicians right now…). Young used some of the models that ODI has been developing over years of practice to gain insights in these complex processes. He actually got some comments that ‘things are not that simple’ and cannot be put into nice, neat models. Well, if you try to analyze how and why people make certain decisions, it might be useful to think the same way they do. After all, we do have a tendency to simplify.

During the rest of the day, similar comments emerged. People find it difficult to grasp what complexity could mean in practice. How can you, as a development practitioner (or anyone else for that matter) simultaneously act, try to please your donor, be accountable to your beneficiaries, and keep track of the complex world around you?

Interestingly enough, others came up with examples of how complexity is already used in real life. Or rather, real life is complex (always was and always will be) and people are constantly dealing with that. ‘Complexity,’ one participant commented, ‘is just the flavour of the month. A few months ago we had to do integrated management’.

Now, the ‘old wine in new bottles’ argument might be a bit easy here. But donors, practitioners and policy makers out there are already changing their attitudes. People do realize that not everything is straightforward and linear, and outcomes can be a bit different from what was originally intended. Just get your story right, explain why things happened. Do we really need to change the entire system, or can we change from within the system?