Olivier Serrat, Head of Knowledge Management at the Asian Development Bank, has just published a short paper on complexity and development, as part of their Knowledge Solutions series. Brief excerpt and link below.

Development is a complex, adaptive process but—with exceptions—development work has not been conducted as such… development assistance often follows a linear approach to achieving outputs and outcomes, underpinned by economic consensus among Western liberal democracies. That approach is guided by processes (and associated compliance standards) applied with limited and out-of-date insights on dynamic operational contexts.

Any planning process is based on assumptions—some will be predictable, others wishful. If the assumptions are based on invalid theories of change (including cause-and-effect relationships) and on inappropriate tools, methods, and approaches derived from those, development agencies jeopardize the impacts they seek to realize.

Yet [there are] insufficient conclusions about what complexity thinking could mean for development interventions. Some hard questions remain. How might emerging intuitions from complexity approaches, combined with field practice, systemically (rather than through patchwork approaches) reshape assumptions about the design of development assistance, improve reading of signals, and foster appropriate adapting of actions? What might be the implications of a shift from compliance with external standards to investing in capacities for navigating complexity?

Read the full paper here

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  1. […] model of cause and effect, where the intervention is evaluated as the sole agent of change. In a recent post on complexity and development, Ben Ramalingam highlights a recent publication by Olivier Serrat, Head of Knowledge Management at […]


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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.


Evaluation, Knowledge and learning, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Strategy