Two weeks ago we blogged about a fascinating event taking place in Arusha, convened by World Vision, which aimed to explore how complex adaptive systems thinking can be used to transform approaches to rural development.
Below is a round-up of the event. Special thanks are due to Miriam Booy of World Vision for both synthesising the material and co-authoring this post, and to all the participants for openly sharing their thoughts and ideas.
The conference ran from Tuesday August 31st-Friday Sept 3rd and attracted 50 participants from 11 different countries including South Africa, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Rwanda, DRC, Tanzania, Kenya, Canada and UK. Participants included World Vision staff, community members, international organizations, academics, the private sector and the government. A major focus was the World Vision Governance-Ecosystem-Livelihoods (GEL) programme, a 3 year program (now coming to a close) that integrated complex adaptive systems as its principle programmatic approach.
The emphasis of the event was reflecting on complex adaptive systems approaches and adaptive management practices, through presentations, group discussions and practical exercises.
To paraphrase one of the presenters, a key shared message was that complex adaptive systems approaches suggest that aid agencies need to reconsider the social problems which they are working to address. Specifically, complexity means that agencies cannot afford to ignore the interconnectedness and interaction between diverse elements of the social systems within which they are working. This in turn challenges linear cause-effect thinking to which many aid agencies are wedded. The widely cited example of bed nets as a solution to malaria was highlighted by another presenter:
…the eradication of malaria is not limited to giving out nets and medicine. It is a result of business interests, economic well-being, civic competence… To intervene and eradicate this problem, we need to go beyond the technical and understand its roots… our intervention may require us to address complex administrative and political issues of coordination as well as the simple technical issues of providing nets…”
The presentations themselves were rich and detailed – see below for the pdfs (with warm thanks to all the presenters for agreeing to share them more widely)
- Dr. David Waltner-Toew’s (University of Guelph, Canada) presentation looked at complexity from the perspective of ecosystem health
- Dr. Chris Burman (University of Limpopo, South Africa)talked about Cynefin and Sensemaker methods in ongoing projects on gender-based violence
- Harry Jones (Overseas Development Institute – ODI, UK) talked about tackling complex problems through linking knowledge and decision making
- Leah Kaugura spoke on the new World Vision Integrated Programming Model and the processes needed to bring complexity thinking into this ongoing work
- Dr Rose Mwaipopo (University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania) talked about the linkages between sociology, anthropology and complex adaptive systems as played out in research with coastal communities
- Dr. Harun Makandi (Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology: COSTECH) talked about knowledge, science, technology and complexity in the Tanzania context
Just as important as the presentations were the open discussions that followed them in which participants were able to share their own ideas and personal experiences. A major recurring theme of the discussion will be familiar to Aid on the Edge of Chaos readers, namely: how to promote adaptive management in risk-averse communities and rigid organizational structures such as those found in international aid?
Recognizing that complex systems approaches and adaptive management practices require both time and flexibility, there was much discussion around how such a large international organization (like World Vision) with a wealth of existing policies, logframes, donor deadlines and standardised linear approaches might be able to respond to and encourage adaptability and flexibility within ongoing and new programs.
The wonderful phrase ‘twigframe’ was introduced by Anja Oussoren, the Operations Director of Kenya based Ivory Consult, as a metaphor for a programming model that might be more appropriate to development contexts: after all, twigs are more flexible, diverse and ‘multi-directional’ than logs.
Participants worked through different ideas for bringing complex adaptive systems approaches into the mainstream of aid work. A key realisation was that complex adaptive systems is more of a ‘mindset’ and an approach, rather than simply a set of tools to be implemented into programming. The mindset change necessary was beautifully summarised by one participant:
…I realize that there is often a disconnect between what we are actually doing and what we would like to achieve. We are perhaps focusing too much on addressing individual symptoms rather than dealing with root causes of problems – in part because we don’t understand the system or simply don’t acknowledge the complex network of connections…”
One of the conclusions of a session for World Vision staff which followed the conference was that the new ‘Integrated Programming Model’ currently being rolled out by the organization could potentially be augmented and strengthened the use of the ideas of complex systems approaches and adaptive management. In particular, it was seen as vital to involve communities themselves in mapping out the complexity of their lives – this was seen as a powerful opportunity to improve the relevance of programming approaches. However, it was also recognised that even the biggest NGO in the world was unable to completely change the system on its own – other parts of the aid system would also need to be engaged and convinced.
In this light, participants were intrigued by the fact that the Governance-Ecosystem-Livelihoods (GEL) program was actually funded and implemented by two very large, bureaucratic aid organizations that have a heavy reliance on logframes, preset goals, fixed timelines and linear approaches. But as one of the conference hosts put it:
…GEL was funded on the basis of broad goals that the project set out to accomplish, allowing the communities to define the specific activities to be carried out based on their own systems analyses. This does give hope that different projects reflecting the CAS approach can emerge from within ‘the formal system…”
Knowledge and learning efforts were also seen as a potentially useful entry point for complexity-oriented approaches. As another participant put it:
…we do need complex adaptive systems in research, capacity-building, and community development, as opposed to the linear, technical approaches, that fail because they fail to address other variables key to the problem as well…. systems approaches can be complex and impractical, but there are processes in it that can make it practical. One key entry point is knowledge management…”
The third day of the conference featured a very energised World Cafe session. This process was also designed to demonstrate complex systems in action, with emergent themes, linkages between processes and the involvement of multi-stakeholders with potentially divergent perspectives. The key themes for a “way forward” which emerged from this exercise were
- the need to create community space and capacity to implement this approach,
- the need to build staff capacity to facilitate adaptive processes and
- the determination to seek out ways to introduce appropriate levels of flexibility and adaptability in the use of traditional tools such as the logframe and within wider organizational systems
As one participant summarised:
The theory presentations and discussions were very engaging and definitely inspiring and I hope to somehow integrate complex adaptive systems approaches into how my organization approaches community development. It has certainly influenced my own perceptions of how to approach community development especially in relation to conservation and it has challenged me to rethink our approach to interventions.”
…[the meeting] has helped me to think seriously about the impact (or lack of impact) of many of our community projects especially in terms of what our goals are as a conservation and development organization…”
The conference proceedings can be found here, and the GEL ‘lessons learned’ summary report will be circulated in the next couple of months. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the programme or the meeting, post them in the comments section and we will respond accordingly.