This is a guest post by Frauke de Weijer (pictured), policy and fragile states specialist at the excellent ECDPM think tank.
In a previous post on this blog, Ben explored the potential of complex systems research for thinking about statebuilding and fragility.
In this guest post, I would like to take this discussion one step further by asking what the specific implications are for development policy and practice if we start treating fragility as a wicked problem.
Since I came across the term ‘wicked problems’ a few years ago, I have been convinced that state fragility can indeed be described as a wicked problem. The trick with wicked problems is that they are actually a set of problems (or messes, as Russell Ackoff would describe them), some of which are more technical (or tame) in nature and others are wicked again.
Our tendency, in the development world, is to treat them all as technical; i.e. as problems to which the solutions are already known and simply need to be applied. This is what contributes to the consistent failure in addressing state fragility.
This is not to say that applying a different approach, i.e. a ‘complexity theory approach’, will fix the problem. Wicked problems are not particularly ‘fixable’, which is exactly why they are wicked in the first place! What it means is that we have to start from the premise that we do not know the solutions and that we have to discover those solutions as we go along. This is also what Ben speaks about when he says to ‘avoid silver bullet strategies and attempt multiple parallel experiments’.
How to apply these ideas in practice? Fragile states should not be seen as playing grounds for experimentation, especially not for the international community. Yet, in many instances it is possible to test out different ideas; create the conditions for different endogenous solutions to come about; to allow for learning to flow and for strategies to be continuously adapted to the emerging insights of what it would take for a complex social system to change. The key lies in creating feedback loops and learning systems, something the international development community is notoriously bad at.
In a separate article on ECDPM’s Talking Points blog, I have made a further attempt to translate some of the principles stemming from complexity theory into actual practice in fragile states. In my mind, a number of starting points can be described:
1) We have to start from the premise that we do not understand the complexity and interconnectedness within a social system and that we do not know what the solutions are.
2) New ways forward need to be found through ‘wrestling the problems to the ground’; i.e. by enabling local actors to identify potential solutions, test these, and learn from these.
3) Societal change is painful, takes time, is unpredictable and does not follow well-established paths. For external actors engaging in such settings, conflict-sensitivity is key, but the principle of doing no harm is naïve. It is a matter of mitigating these risks to the best of our ability.
4) In rare cases does the national development strategy reflect a genuine consensus of the people, and ownership is often limited to a small group. This raises questions on whether the principle of alignment with national government strategies can be maintained as a self-evident choice.
5) Long-term engagement and having an over-the-horizon strategic vision is essential in fragile states. However, as long as international development continues to work on the basis of current management models, its impact on fragile states will remain limited.
6) For a new approach to fragility to emerge, the policy making and operational systems in use in development cooperation need to undergo fundamental change. It means going beyond a mentality in which experts know the solutions, and putting ‘learning systems’ at the center of development policy.
I elaborate on these principles in a new article on ECDPM’s Talking Points blog website. Do take a look and share any thoughts there.