In the few weeks following the Haiti earthquake, much of our work at ALNAP has focused on getting key operational lessons from previous earthquakes into the hands and minds of operational agency staff, and briefing media representatives on a variety of issues related to the relief and recovery work. 

As the initial signs of some kind of normality are returning for the people of Haiti, it may seem rather bland or even improper to talk of theory. But theories can and do powerfully shape how we think about disasters, how we understand the aftermath, and how we carry out international aid work.

Increasingly, the complexity sciences are being put forward as alternatives to the ‘classic’ ways of analysing and understanding disasters. In his 2003 book, Natural disasters and development in a globalizing world, Mark Pelling – a leading researcher on natural disasters based at Kings College London – argued that many developments in disaster resilience and climate change adaptation have strong affinities with complexity theory, although their use is often not acknowledged. He also suggested that complexity science offers a ‘meta-framework’ to bring together a number of ways of understanding disasters. This framework uses ideas of emergence, self-organisation, adaptation and networks, each of which are looked at below.

Emergence is increasingly important in how we understand the dynamics of a crisis. As argued by Greg Bankoff, Georg Frerks, Dorothea Hilhorst in Mapping vulnerability: disasters, development, and people

…complexity theory is highly relevant for disaster studies because it provides the entry point to describe disasters as the interactions between sub-systems of nature and society or hazard and vulnerability… Disasters caused by natural hazards result from the complex interactions of nature and society…” 

Such complexity-oriented approaches have been used to explore Hurricane Mitch, the Peruvian earthquake, the Montserrat volcano and others. As one study has noted: 

Consider the following three ingredients: a mega-city in a poor, Pacific rim nation; seasonal monsoon rains; a huge garbage dump. Mix these ingredients in the following way: move impoverished people to the dump, where they build shanty towns and scavenge for a living in the mountain of garbage; saturate the dump with changing monsoon rain patterns; collapse the weakened slopes of garbage and send debris flows to inundate the shanty towns. That particular disaster, which took place outside of Manila in July 2000… was not inherent in any of the three ingredients of that tragedy; it emerged from their interaction’ (Sarewitz and Pielke, 2001 cited in Ramalingam et al, 2008, emphasis added).

The underlying message is that natural disasters are characterised and created by context. Raima Larter (an award-winning complexity blogger) has used some of these ideas to argue that Haiti was not a natural disaster but a man-made one. In fact, these approaches suggest that there is in fact no such thing as a ‘natural’ disaster, as all disasters are created by emergent interactions between crisis drivers and human actvities.

As well as crisis-specific uses, some analysts have tried to apply complexity principles to understand global disaster trends, moving beyond disasters as one-off local events towards a macro-view.

Dr Peter Walker’s work on complexity and context as the determininants of the future is one of a number of examples of from within the aid sector. Thomas Homer-Dixon has written extensively on this, most notably in the superb and influential ‘Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization’.  These works approach disasters as part of ongoing dynamic processes of global change, shaped by contextual factors such as demographic shifts, natural resource dependency, urbanisation and climate change.

The second area of relevance of complexity in natural disasters is in understanding the importance of self-organisation in the process of response and adaptation after a disaster. Professor Louise Comfort, who works in Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, has used complexity theory to understand local responses to earthquakes and other crises.  Comfort builds on the idea of emergent crises (as described above), and focuses on the next stage – how local self-organisation occurs in the face of disaster.

Comfort’s argument is that self-organising capabilities within commmunities are central to both pre-disaster resilience and post-disaster response. Self-organisation is determined by the capacity to exchange and act on incoming information across different levels. Effective local response is based on the ‘timely exchange of information’ between local actors, facilitated by social and human capital and information infrastructure. (This chimes with the best-case use of social technologies by aid agencies, discussed here a couple of weeks back.)

As Comfort puts it:  

…when the complexity of interacting scientific, social, political and economic conditions exceeds the existing capacity for organisational control, decisions taken by local actors govern the direction of the evolving process… investment in improving capacity for organisational response at the local level is likely to see the greatest benefit to the community…”

The importance of self-organised local responses echoes with the findings of the Tsunami evaluation, which found that most of the life-saving work (over 90%) was done by the local population and not international agencies. Similarly, in Haiti, despite the media attention focusing on dramatic efforts of international search and rescue teams, the maajority of the life-saving work will have been undertaken by Haitians themselves.  

The third area of relevance for complexity science is in the delivery of international humanitarian aid, where ideas of adaptation and networks are increasingly important. This is perhaps the least advanced of the three areas in terms of systematic academic research. Aid agencies, it is argued, are far too reactive and need to reform to become more attuned to local contexts and realities. And aid processes need to take account of the dynamic nature of humanitarian needs. Here too there are growing numbers of studies, for example:

The overall underlying message of much of the work covered above is that the classic ways of approaching natural disasters – seeing them as one-off events, disregarding local self-organised capacities for response, the way in which aid itself is conceptualised and delivered – tend to be based on simple, linear theories of cause and effect

Such theories inform many disaster-related practices in ways that echo that famous quote from John Maynard Keynes: practical people who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, frequently owe a debt to some defunct theorist. This is not just true of disaster aid, but applies to many social, economic and political issues.

In working to improve our understanding of and approaches to natural disasters – and indeed other pressing issues of our time – we may need to start to acknowledge and move beyond these implicit intellectual debts.

As is illustrated above, complexity theory gives us a set of useful starting points. How we use it to change our ways of seeing the world, and then use this to change our practices, is the real and enduring challenge.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. This blog post by Ben Ramalingam (ALNAP) argues that with the devastating Haiti earthquake still fresh in our minds, this is the time to reflect on the underlying theories that shape the way “we think about disasters, how we understand the aftermath, and how we carry out international aid work.” He provides a facscinating overview of the complexity sciences and how they can inform our understanding about the dynamics of crises, a first step in framing appropriate and locally-relevant disaster response programmes.

  2. […] I came across a blog called Aid on the Edge of Chaos that brought it all together for me.  Blogger Ben Ramalingam writes about seeing natural disasters […]

  3. I’m so sorry that I am only now, in July (!), finding your excellent blog post. Thanks for linking to my own blog, Complexity Simplified, and for mentioning my attempt to explain the way complex systems science can help us understand and prepare for disasters. Your explanation is so much more thorough and I’m very excited to read some of the references you’ve provided here, as I’m still quite interested in this topic, but not as familiar with the disaster response literature as you are. My own expertise is more on the basic physical and mathematical principles involved in complex systems science, and I am not as conversant with the disaster literature as I would like to be. So, thank you for this great post! — Raima

  4. […] example of a growing trend to apply complexity science in disasters, as noted in a previous Aid on the Edge. Complexity-inspired approaches are increasingly being put forward as alternatives to the […]

  5. […] analysis resonates with a previous post on this blog focusing on complexity and disasters – to quote […]


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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.


Knowledge and learning, Natural disasters, Networks, Organisations, Public Policy, Reports and Studies, Resilience