A challenge for development research

UKCDS is aiming to experiment with different ideas for research programmes informed by complexity principles and which work across overlapping disciplines and systems.

Intuitively we all know that the world is complex, that cause does not lead to effect and that it’s impossible to control for all eventualities. But many would argue the development world doesn’t always acknowledge this reality. Increasingly, researchers such as Ben Ramalingam, who spoke at UKCDS in February, are considering how insights from formal complexity science and systems thinking can be harnessed for ‘smarter’ aid and development which is dealing with messy, open-ended, genuinely interlinked problems.

Complexity science still defies easy explanation, but essentially looks at interconnected variables in a system whose behaviours on a large scale are more than simply the sum of its component parts. While this may sound abstract and fuzzy, what is clear is that as a ‘lens’, as much as a science in itself, complexity crosses disciplines and helps us better understand challenges in international development. It has therefore become a growing area of interest for UKCDS members and Secretariat alike.

As noted by Duncan Green, among others, once you start seeing the scientific complexity of the world around us – everywhere from ant colonies to weather to market crashes – it’s hard to stop. But then it frequently begs the question: “so what?” Once we’ve seen that the world of international development is complex, how can institutions and practitioners embrace flexibility and change within institutional systems which may not incentivise this approach? Do we accept that in the face of the complex reality on the ground, neat linear planning systems like the log frame are the best of a bad bunch?

Ben Ramalingam has recently been working with DFID to pilot the use of complex systems research tools in new forms of aid delivery programme design. This approach aims to use designs which adapt to, or “learn to dance”with, the complex system in which development operates rather than try to impose quick top-down fixes. The challenges for research programmes, however, may be different, and UKCDS wants to consider these specifically in the world of international development research.

Unfortunately, the conversations around interdisciplinary working, which is required to respond to complex development problems, tend to revolve around the challenges. We need to move the conversation forward. Everyone agrees on the need for improved communication and collaboration. But how could this work better in practice on the micro level, within development funder and partner institutions? How could the structure of a research programme in international development allow for genuine cooperation across disciplines and fully respond to the complexity of the research question?

Complex systems approaches are already being applied in some programmes, for example the ESPA programme or the Health Systems Research Initiative. But looking beyond the content of research, how can complexity inform the management of research – in terms of design, commissioning, peer review and monitoring and evaluation? And how could a new approach propose ideas without slipping into yet another “best practice” style model?

To tackle some of these thorny issues, UKCDS is aiming to experiment with different ideas for research programmes informed by complexity principles and which work across overlapping disciplines and systems, reflective of the real world in which development takes place. We would therefore love to hear your views on some of the features a “complex” research programme might share.

Please get in touch with your comments or questions!