Complexity and International Development

Complexity and International Development
24 February, 2015

2014 in review

Jaime Enoch

The first in our blog series asking readers to tell us how development research and complexity science can work together. Tell us what YOU think in the comments below.

Over the past year, we’ve been grappling with questions around how complexity science can play a role in international development research. For example, we explored how funders might work more effectively across their siloes by integrating insights and methods from the world(s) of complexity thinking. While our internal conversations have sparked lively debate, UKCDS hasn’t gained much traction on the issue so far – a lot of our member organisations still have questions about what complexity science can offer. So now we want to turn the questions around to you.

The “so what?” of complexity thinking still looms large. Questions remain surrounding how an awareness of complexity in its formal scientific sense, and the invaluable methods/tools it provides (e.g. agent based modelling to plan malaria control interventions or network analysis of agricultural trade networks), can bring about bigger shifts in the way funders approach development research.

Nonetheless, 2014 has been a year in which the complex dynamics of development have been more clearly evidenced than ever. A range of interlocking biological, environmental, social and behavioural factors fuelled the spread of an Ebola epidemic of unprecedented proportions.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2015 opens with the tragic situation in West Africa and the international community’s failures to internalise learning from previous epi/pandemics such as AIDS and Swine Flu. The main body of this report explores how cognitive biases, behaviour and culture impact upon development, both within low- and middle-income countries and the organisations working in this space. It demonstrates that development is complex and messy, with “wicked problems” rearing their head at every twist and turn and presenting serious challenges to the dominant organisational culture in development. However the authors also stress that there is more scope to “nudge” longstanding patterns of behaviour in institutions than is often assumed.

This year has seen the development world take a big step in engaging with complexity science. In the wake of his book Aid on the Edge of Chaoswhich thrust the complex realities of development into the limelight, Ben Ramalingam has worked with DFID to pilot new forms of programme management incorporating approaches and tools from complex systems analysis.

So going into 2015, there’s never been a better time to talk about complexity – even if it’s hard to discuss in a way that puts everyone on the same page. For example, there seems to be a difference between recognising the complexity of a development problem, and then using methods from academic complexity science to study this complexity. The scientists and “developmentistas” may appear to speak the same language of complexity whilst actually remaining on entirely different wavelengths. On the flip side, there may also be research and development programmes which completely dispense with the language of scientific complexity while adopting the kind of adaptive, reflective and flexible approach or worldview that complexity thinking encourages.

We’re therefore hoping to crowd-source some ideas from experts on complexity and development to help us better understand, and crucially to communicate, some of the basics around where complexity fits into development research. We need your input, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

So the first question to our loyal readers is…

Do you always need to use methods from complexity science to address complex realities in development?

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