Development is complex, so start with the simple things

Building capacity one brick at a time

Ben Ramalingam has a great post setting out how to incorporate both results-based rigour and necessary but woollier capacity-building type projects, by putting them on a two-dimensional continuum of complexity. I think this is a good way to visualise the issues.

I have only one thing to add, and it links back to Tony Blair’s recent comments (see my previous post on Learning by Doing) and the problems of form vs function. If we want to build the capacity of developing country institutions, then I think there is no better way to do so than to first focus on delivering the simple things, which can indeed be measured using a results-based framework. Moreover, critical self-analysis of the difficulties in improving delivery beyond a certain threshold may well lead the institution on to try tackling the more complex and challenging tasks whilst not forgetting the most important end goal of improved service delivery.

J the Hoodie recently contended that while Aid might be able to deliver some worthy results, it cannot (at least not on its own) ‘fix’ any of the big problems such as poverty alleviation, food shortages or global environmental degradation. In such I think he is right. Part of the problem, I think, is that Aid has even tried. When faced with such intractable problems it is far better to focus on what we know we can do; start with the simple things and build up from there. There’s a lot that we will still never fix with Aid alone (international aid policies and environmental cooperation surely need to see order of magnitude improvements), but you never know, we might even surprise ourselves with what we can do!


3 responses to this post.

  1. This is my big problem with the complexity discourse. Of course, development is complex. Of course, we’ve always known that. Everything is interrelated. For long term sustainable change, everything has to change, maybe even at the same time. The system is chaotic, unpredictable. Therefore, we focus on the simple, linear, controllable: build school where they already have teachers and students, village then has school for teachers and students. Might village move one day, leaving buildings behind? Possible. But in the short term, people have benefited.

    If “complexity science” really “worked” in a practical way, then all those complexity theorists would be stock market billionaires. They’re not.


    • I guess that complexity scientists might respond that their analysis helps us to understand what won’t work and why, rather than what will work, hence the lack of complexity science billionaires. Either that or they’re just not that motivated by money …

      On the school buildings front, I might counter that many times school buildings are not the biggest constraint. (I presume that on the projects on which you work they probably are!) And this illustrates the point that a simple solution still needs to be underpinned by a thorough analysis.


      • I am all for detailed analysis! (And prototyping, and changing direction, and monitoring, and learning.) I see two strands in the complexity lit: A – things are a complex, and there are limits to what we can do, and B – things are complex, and complexity science will help us to manage that complexity. I side with the former, and am critical of the latter. (And am still waiting to see some tangible results.)

        Back in the Modern era, there was a belief that given enough science, technology, management and money, we could do anything. That’s a dangerous belief, and fell apart in practice more than once. The postmodern successor is the concept of “finitude”: that there are severe limits to what we can know, do and control.

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