This week sees what promises to be a fascinating event bringing together practitioners and scientists to reflect on issues of complex adaptive systems and rural development, organised by World Vision Canada in Arusha.

The three day conference has a special focus on the lessons from an innovative programme to enhance aid agency staff and community leaders capabilities to “deal with the changing and complex nature of poverty and development”.

Governance, Ecosystems, Livelihoods (GEL) is a three-year program funded by Canadian International Development Agency, World Vision Canada and the Manitoba Council of International Cooperation (MCIC) and is aimed at improving community resilience in four African countries.

What makes GEL stand out, to my mind, is the explicit attempt to bring complexity thinking into aid policy and practice, and at the largest international NGO, no less.

The GEL program proposes the use of complex adaptive systems (CAS) approach as an effective and sustainable framework for World Vision Canada and its partners to promote good governance, advance environmental sustainability and create a better environment for economic development.

As the GEL programme information suggests:

The need for this program emerged from a growing awareness that, despite the best of efforts, many poverty and health indicators in sub Saharan Africa are actually getting worse. Traditional sector based approaches were not fully addressing the complex underlying causes of poverty. Development assumptions have been made and strategies developed, on the fact that the needs of people were based on a homogeneous and essentially static knowledge of communities and environments. The situation of individuals within communities varies temporally, spatially and socially at a variety of scales. Attempts to “sector” peoples lives have often ignored important external problems, influences and feedback loops that affect poverty. The current challenge is the need to develop tools and frameworks to deal with this complexity. New strategies for transformational development are needed.

The speakers at the event include David Waltner-Toews, Chris Burman and Harry Jones (who worked with me on the ODI working paper on Exploring the Science of Complexity). I managed to speak to David and Chris before the event, and they both had some fascinating insights to share which will resonate with regular Aid on the Edge readers. Here are a couple of their insights, rapidly transcribed – I hope I have done them justice!


…complexity enables us to simultaneously address technical, ethical and political issues – it allows you to do so, in fact, done right it even forces you to do so. There is a strong tendency in large development bureaucracies to separate out these things – so for example, there may be a new strategy which says, we are doing agricultural development, and therefore we want to increase productivity and value for money. But if you ask, what are the implications for equity, community, gender, taking into account that women tend to do better in the informal economy and men in the formal economy, the standard response is, that’s not our department, go to health, or the place where that is dealt with… Give me a legitimate theoretical basis for saying ‘this is just agriculture, this is just health, this is just environment’. We need to bring together disciplinary perspectives on the same complex reality because ultimately the world we live in is all of these things…


…complexity enables us to begin to get people to think about the world in different ways – which means they have an expansive learning field as opposed to a rigid learning field… much aid learning is very limited and it has almost no space for creativity – it is learning as a bureaucratic tick-box. Complexity approaches open up new potentials and horizons within which learning can take place, and if we can play around with new ways of situating learning in the context of peoples lives, we can find ways of moving beyond the linear and predictable. The key is to use complexity to reframe the context for learning…”

Compelling stuff. I will be blogging more about the event in the next week, hopefully with some of the presentation files and real-time updates from the participants, and will also be writing about the some of the lessons emerging from the GEL programme in the coming weeks.  Watch this space!

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. (eagerly awaiting the posts you promised would follow…)

  2. […] 20, 2010 by bramalingam Two weeks ago we blogged about a fascinating event taking place in Arusha, convened by World Vision, which aimed to explore how complex adaptive systems approaches can be used to transform […]


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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.


Agriculture, Facilitation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Organisations, Resilience, Strategy