There’s a new cool kid on the development block. Complexity theory has delivered a devastating critique of existing development programmes, and offered a promising, shiny alternative. With momentum from Ben Ramalingam’s book ’Aid on the Edge of Chaos’, as well as the backing of intellectual heavyweights such as Owen Barder and Duncan Green, there are great opportunities to improve the way that the international development sector functions.
This blog outlines three potential pitfalls facing ‘complex programmes’. While a complex programme could take multiple approaches, this blog focuses on development programmes which spurn direct delivery of assistance in favour of attempts to change the systems that the poor work in, whether private sector, public sector, or civil society.
1) Complex programmes can ignore the poor. All the literature on complexity theory stresses the need to consult with and understand the views, attitudes and potential of the poor. But then again, so do manuals on logical framework analysis, illustrating the potential gulf between rhetoric and practice. There are several reasons why a complex programme might be difficult to reconcile with a participatory approach.
Firstly, the jargon of complexity theory is often impenetrable. Even the clear-thinking (and writing) Ben Ramalingam didn’t manage to avoid getting bogged down in terminology like agent-based modelling, ruggedness, and fitness landscapes. Even the phrase ‘aid on the edge of chaos’ means little more to me after reading the book than it did before. This potentially restricts the design and implementation of complex programmes to ‘experts’ with an academic background in complexity theory, or at least the nerve to bluff their way through.
Secondly, a programme which aims to change systems, rather than directly provide assistance, may have no contact with the poor at all. For example, rather than providing agricultural inputs directly to farmers, a complex programme might facilitate the efforts of businesses, business advocacy groups, farmers associations, and politicians. Since the direct recipient of assistance is the intermediary players rather than farmers themselves, you could run an entire programme without ever meeting with or talking with an actual farmer. Obviously this isn’t how any development programme should be run – but as a complex programme focuses on the system level, it could end up ignoring those who use the system.
2) Complex programmes might find nothing to do. Facilitation, supporting champions, and creating an enabling environment for change often seem to require holding meetings. The trouble is, there is a limit to the number of meetings you can arrange, and relevant stakeholders only have a limited amount of time in which to receive your support, before they spend more time being supported than doing anything useful. A programme which takes a genuinely facilitative approach may simply find that it doesn’t have much to do. There is certainly a place for a small-scale, patient hub that tries to bring people together and deploys expertise strategically – but that is never going to be more than a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the development budget. Putting more money into complex programmes (the donors preferred approach) could just end up reducing their impact.
3) Complex programmes are extremely hard to monitor and evaluate. It’s very difficult to see a system changing, and even harder to tell what part of that change you contributed to. Owen Barder is right to stress the need for better data, and Duncan Green is correct to emphasise flexible, iterative monitoring. Even so, if a programme isn’t delivering tangible outputs, it’s very difficult to judge success. To put it another way – it’s challenging to tell the difference between a transformative organisation facilitating change in complex systems, and a load of people sitting around writing reports and holding meetings. It’s a challenge for evaluators, and a nightmare for donors who want to spend their money wisely. To link to the first point above, an M&E system for a complex programme is likely to be more reliant on ‘expert opinion’ and less reliant on the views of the poor, who will probably never have heard of the programme and may be ill placed to judge its efficacy.
All three points are illustrated by the case of TradeMark Southern Africa, which was recently closed following a red rating from the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. TradeMark Southern Africa aimed to improve Southern African trade performance for the benefit of the poor. Although not explicitly influenced by complexity theory, it worked in a complex environment, primarily through intermediaries rather than directly with the poor. The ICAI evaluation found that it displayed all of the above issues. With such a big distance between operations and beneficiaries, the programme had “inadequate focus on the poor”. Difficulty in spending money led to “wasteful spending that contributes little to overall goals.” And they had difficulty in monitoring their impact; for example, TMSA monitored average traffic crossing times across a border, rather than the more challenging (and difficult to attribute) price of transport and goods.
None of the above points dismiss the many insights that complexity theory has brought to development. However, it should be recognised that there are real dangers in consciously trying to work in complex environments, as well as opportunities. As complexity changes (as I hope it will) from the latest exciting buzzword to a practical approach to implementing development programmes, I believe some of these challenges are addressed.