Last weeks editorial on SciDev, the leading source of authoritative information on science and technology for development, focused on the need for ‘holistic approaches’ in development.

Specifically, it argued that developing countries need more joined-up systems thinking to promote growth and reduce poverty, and that donor agencies needed to find ways of supporting such efforts. One positive move in this direction is that systemic approaches to development are growing in popularity in health and other contexts:

[there is] growing support for the idea that improving health requires more than pursuing discrete objectives such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Equally essential is an awareness of how different development goals relate to one another, such as the effect of economic growth on raising levels of public health. In a similar way, a holistic approach is also essential for building the solid infrastructure and social systems needed to sustain scientific research and technological innovation in developing countries, as both activities cut across a wide range of different social and economic objectives.

The benefits of such an approach were spelled out, drawing on the discussions of a COHRED meeting in Geneva:

The meeting heard several examples of the benefits of a holistic approach to delivering public goods and services. In Costa Rica, introducing this perspective to health care has made it much easier to ensure that medical services reflect user demand — since it addresses the total package of health needs — rather than supplier or researcher preferences. One participant from Rwanda described how that country has adopted a systems view across its whole development strategy. Rwanda’s efforts to promote science and innovation have involved joined-up thinking between ministries and agencies, avoiding previous traps, such as building up research institutes while ignoring the mechanisms needed to ensure research uptake.

Another speaker challenged the idea that the spread of mobile phones in Africa represented merely an imaginative technological leap. He suggested that they had spread so rapidly because mobile networks met a number of needs, from promoting the construction of a telecommunications infrastructure to finding effective mechanisms for providing financial credit to small-scale enterprises. Other such ‘tipping points’ for development, he suggested, would only emerge from analysis of areas where multiple needs overlap.

But taking such an approach faces significant challenges:

despite the need for a holistic approach, introducing greater ‘systems thinking’ into the development agenda in general — and the health agenda in particular — is easier said than done. One reason is that systems thinking challenges some of the conventional ways of delivering development aid….

There are significant institutional challenges:

In developing countries… intense rivalries for funding between ministries can undermine policies intended to promote collaboration in addressing development challenges.

Similarly, multilateral agencies, including the technical bodies of the United Nations, such as the Food and Agriculture Organization and the WHO, tend to see development problems through the ‘vertical’ lenses of their own specialised mandate. Cross-agency collaboration has had a chequered history.

Donor agencies find it easier to meet domestic demands for greater accountability by measuring the outputs of clearly defined projects, rather than assessing the impact of their funding on programmes that are more diffuse and long term (such as building up the infrastructure required to establish a strong scientific community).

The Editorial suggests that the first step is to change perceptions of the development process, in ways that many Aid on the Edge readers will recognise:

There are no easy solutions to any of these problems. But a first step lies in modifying the way the development process is perceived. It is not simply about providing aid money, or improving individual skills and livelihoods, but helping countries build up the complex systems on which social and economic development depends.

The piece closes with some concerns about current directions in the aid sector:

It would be a tragedy if current financial pressures on aid budgets, demands for easy-to-trace accountability, or the need for a quick political pay-off led to further fragmentation of both aid efforts and development policies. The future lies in the opposite direction.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Accountability, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, MDGs, Public Policy, Strategy, Technology