Navigating Complexity in International Development

15 October 2015

Today my new book Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Development at Scale is published. I wrote it with my longstanding friend and colleague Stuart Worsley. We have tried to braid together a decade of experiences in international development – some together, some separate. What we have concluded is that most of the large scale top-down development interventions have failed and this is because we live in a complex world which simply doesn’t conform to the linear assumptions that underpin most log frames.

Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale - by Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley - section of book cover

This is not a new analysis.

Others such as Ben Ramalingham have demonstrated much more comprehensively than us the nature of the problem. What we have tried to do in this book is articulate a different way of thinking about how change happens and how effective large scale change might be catalysed.

The book argues that without underpinning initiatives with a backbone of participation, iterative learning, and intentional networking and relationship building it is impossible to meet the key challenges of international development. These we articulate as:

  • appropriate action, by which we mean action that meets the needs of those who it is designed to benefit;
  • ownership, by which we mean that those people feel that they have a personal stake in the interventions, feel passionate about them, and will fight for them;
  • sustainability, by which we mean that these actions endure beyond any early period of ‘additional’ investment;
  • and scale.

We propose that sustainability and scale are dependent on first achieving appropriate action and ownership, and these in turn can only be achieved through participation, learning and networking.

We believe that development problems need to be understood systemically. When we can see a whole system of interconnecting causalities and feedback loops it is possible to see multiple points where it is possible to intervene. Transformative change needs to be seen as a shift from one pattern of norms and power relations to another. In complexity terms this can be seen as a shift towards a new attractor.

This suggests that change at scale has more to do with nurturing innovation which then takes root and spreads - in a similar way to that in which a movement builds - than some form of top-down roll out which is characteristic of most contemporary approaches to scaling.

Three participatory strategies that can be taken to scale

We articulate three participatory strategies that can be taken to scale.

  1. The first is what we call Participatory Systemic Inquiry which involves collective analysis of hundreds of narratives to build large system maps. These allow us to depict the whole represented by the narratives in one place and to see the causal relationships and feedback loops which allow us to identify where to take change.
  2. The second is Systemic Action Research, an approach which I have developed extensively over the years. This is a more structured approach to integrating participation, learning and network development – engaging with multiple questions across multiple stakeholders.
  3. The third is an approach which we have discerned from our experience and our observation of others work which we call Nurtured Emergent Development. This is a more organic process which is akin to preparing a rich soil, planning seeds, nurturing the saplings and protecting the growth of a forest. We argue that this form of development is a much more promising strategy for sustainability and scale than large scale top-down planning.

Many of the examples that we give have moved from small scale local initiatives to spread across whole countries and sometimes beyond. The book draws on stories and case studies from a wide range of countries including Kenya, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Egypt and the UK. It traverses a wide range of issues including water and sanitation, agriculture, organising for peace and education. Our aim has been to offer realistic strategies for navigating complexity in international development.

If you like the book and are convinced by the argument – let people know about it and maybe even write a review!

Danny Burns is Team Leader for the Participation Research and Knowledge cluster at IDS. He can be found on Twitter at: @dannyburns2

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