Owen Barder recently used a few examples of the work of complexity thinkers, notably Clay Shirker and Joseph Tainter, to suggest that the aid system may be due to collapse imminently, because its own internal complexity would reduce its resilience to the changes that are happening around it.

It’s a powerful argument, and one which is worth building on with a couple more ideas from the complexity sciences.

Specifically,  one of the features of systems that have undergone rapid collapse is that they are tightly coupled, say like the banking sector. As was argued in a 2008 ODI working paper (http://www.odi.org.uk/resources/download/583.pdf):

“Charles Perrow’s work illustrates dramatically the implications of connectedness for interdependence by distinguishing between accidents that occur in tightly coupled systems and in loosely coupled systems (Perrow, 1999, cited in Urry, 2003). In tightly coupled systems, relatively trivial changes in one element or dimension can spread rapidly and unpredictably through the system and have dramatic and unpredictable effects. A good example is provided in the following description of world foreign exchange markets: ‘… the system [is] now tightly interdependent so that microeconomic responses easily escalate into macroeconomic contagion … when China gets a cold, the US … sneeze[s]’ (Urry, 2003).”

By contrast, the aid system is more loosely coupled, rather more like the global construction industry:

“Those systems where elements are not tightly linked or interdependent with many other components are called loosely coupled systems. In these systems, elements influence each other over longer timeframes, and in more diffuse and subtle ways. An influential example of loose coupling is to be found in the work of Karl Weick, which looked at the US educational system: ‘… [educational] systems are responsive but… [connections may play out] infrequent, weak in their mutual effects, unimportant [and] slow to respond … (Weick 1976) The coupling of the system has an effect on its adaptability to the environment and its potential to survive, and therefore defines its fitness. Complexity science proposes an interesting perspective on the fitness of organisations and sectors based on the tradeoffs of loose or tight coupling. Loosely coupled systems may contain certain problems owing to their lack of connectivity. However, there are also benefits, in that the elements in such a system have more independence than in tightly coupled systems because, almost by definition, they can maintain their equilibrium or stability even when other parts of the system are affected by a change in the environment…”

Owen gives the examples of the news and music industry, which have been radically altered by the internet and digital content. As a result, certainly specific news organisations and record companies have collapsed. However the delivery of news and advertising, through wires and online media outlets, and music through online portals is growing. There are winners and losers, certainly, but the system hasn’t collapsed as a whole, precisely because (for example) the Guardian is not dependent on the New York Post for its work. This is the kind of collapse we might expect in the aid system – slow, uneven, with some big winners and many losers.

I would argue that this is quite unlike the the potential of wholesale, rapid collapse that threated the global banking system as a result mis-selling at the lower end of the US mortgage market, which necessitated concerted and dramatic actions from governments of the world.

The image for the aid sector is less of dominos toppling one after the other, and more one of the landscape changing around a cluster of organisations, many of which will fall by the wayside, and a few of which will be lifted up to new opportunities and horizons.

One could argue from this perspective that the lack of aid coordination is not only about political gains but also a handy survival mechanism in a world of rapid change… it also makes one wonder which aid agencies, if any, are tuned into the unfolding changes and how the are changing their mental models and approaches to take advantage.

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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.


Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Organisations