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 thinking can be used to transform approaches to rural development.

Below is a round-up of the event. Special thanks are due to Miriam Booy of World Vision for  both synthesising the material and co-authoring this post, and to all the participants for openly sharing their thoughts and ideas.

The conference ran from Tuesday August 31st-Friday Sept 3rd and attracted 50 participants from 11 different countries including South Africa, Senegal, Niger, Mali, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Rwanda, DRC, Tanzania, Kenya, Canada and UK. Participants included World Vision staff, community members, international organizations, academics, the private sector and the government. A major focus was the World Vision Governance-Ecosystem-Livelihoods (GEL) programme, a 3 year program (now coming to a close) that integrated complex adaptive systems as its principle programmatic approach.

The emphasis of the event was reflecting on complex adaptive systems approaches and adaptive management practices, through presentations, group discussions and practical exercises.

To paraphrase one of the presenters, a key shared message was that complex adaptive systems approaches suggest that aid agencies need to reconsider the social problems which they are working to address. Specifically, complexity means that agencies cannot afford to ignore the interconnectedness and interaction between diverse elements of the social systems within which they are working. This in turn challenges linear cause-effect thinking to which many aid agencies are wedded. The widely cited example of bed nets as a solution to malaria was highlighted by another presenter:

…the eradication of malaria is not limited to giving out nets and medicine. It is a result of business interests, economic well-being, civic competence…  To intervene and eradicate this problem, we need to go beyond the technical and understand its roots… our intervention may require us to address complex administrative and political issues of coordination as well as the simple technical issues of providing nets…”

The presentations themselves were rich and detailed – see below for the pdfs (with warm thanks to all the presenters for agreeing to share them more widely)

Just as important as the presentations were the open discussions that followed them in which participants were able to share their own ideas and personal experiences. A major recurring theme of the discussion will be familiar to Aid on the Edge of Chaos readers, namely: how to promote adaptive management in risk-averse communities and rigid organizational structures such as those found in international aid?

Recognizing that complex systems approaches and adaptive management practices require both time and flexibility, there was much discussion around how such a large international organization (like World Vision) with a wealth of existing policies, logframes, donor deadlines and standardised linear approaches might be able to respond to and encourage adaptability and flexibility within ongoing and new programs.

The wonderful phrase ‘twigframe’ was introduced by Anja Oussoren, the Operations Director of Kenya based Ivory Consult, as a metaphor for a programming model that might be more appropriate to development contexts: after all, twigs are more flexible, diverse and ‘multi-directional’ than logs.

Participants worked through different ideas for bringing complex adaptive systems approaches into the mainstream of aid work. A key realisation was that complex adaptive systems is more of a ‘mindset’ and an approach, rather than simply a set of tools to be implemented into programming. The mindset change necessary was beautifully summarised by one participant:

…I realize that there is often a disconnect between what we are actually doing and what we would like to achieve. We are perhaps focusing too much on addressing individual symptoms rather than dealing with root causes of problems – in part because we don’t understand the system or simply don’t acknowledge the complex network of connections…”

One of the conclusions of a session for World Vision staff which followed the conference was that the new ‘Integrated Programming Model’ currently being rolled out by the organization could potentially be augmented and strengthened the use of the ideas of complex systems approaches and adaptive management. In particular, it was seen as vital to involve communities themselves in mapping out the complexity of their lives – this was seen as a powerful opportunity to improve the relevance of programming approaches. However, it was also recognised that even the biggest NGO in the world was unable to completely change the system on its own – other parts of the aid system would also need to be engaged and convinced.

In this light, participants were intrigued by the fact that the Governance-Ecosystem-Livelihoods (GEL) program was actually funded and implemented by two very large, bureaucratic aid organizations that have a heavy reliance on logframes, preset goals, fixed timelines and linear approaches. But as one of the conference hosts put it:

…GEL was funded on the basis of broad goals that the project set out to accomplish, allowing the communities to define the specific activities to be carried out based on their own systems analyses. This does give hope that different projects reflecting the CAS approach can emerge from within ‘the formal system…”

Knowledge and learning efforts were also seen as a potentially useful entry point for complexity-oriented approaches. As another participant put it:

…we do need complex adaptive systems in research, capacity-building, and community development, as opposed to the linear, technical approaches, that fail because they fail to address other variables key to the problem as well…. systems approaches can be complex and impractical, but there are processes in it that can make it practical. One key entry point is knowledge management…”

The third day of the conference featured a very energised World Cafe session.  This process was also designed to demonstrate complex systems in action, with emergent themes, linkages between processes and the involvement of multi-stakeholders with potentially divergent perspectives. The key themes for a “way forward” which emerged from this exercise were

  1. the need to create community space and capacity to implement this approach,
  2. the need to build staff capacity to facilitate adaptive processes and
  3. the determination to seek out ways to introduce appropriate levels of flexibility and adaptability in the use of traditional tools such as the logframe and within wider organizational systems

As one participant summarised:

The theory presentations and discussions were very engaging and definitely inspiring and I hope to somehow integrate complex adaptive systems approaches into how my organization approaches community development. It has certainly influenced my own perceptions of how to approach community development especially in relation to conservation and it has challenged me to rethink our approach to interventions.”

And finally:

…[the meeting] has helped me to think seriously about the impact (or lack of impact) of many of our community projects especially in terms of what our goals are as a conservation and development organization…”

The conference proceedings can be found here, and the GEL ‘lessons learned’ summary report will be circulated in the next couple of months. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the programme or the meeting, post them in the comments section and we will respond accordingly.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. Such a good post and so encouraging to see that some of the complex adaptive systems thinking is connecting on the ground and in diverse settings. A quote from “A Pattern Language” seems fitting:

    Recognize that you are not assembling a building from components like an erector set, but that you are instead weaving a structure which starts out globally complete, but flimsy; then gradually making it stiffer but still rather flimsy; and only finally making it completely stiff and strong. p968

  2. Thanks for reminding us that development is complex and that adaptive systems are needed. Coming from the aid transparency movement I would like to comment that the more the diverse perspectives of multiple stakeholders are taken into account, the more difficult it will be for aid agencies to pursue linear, technical approaches.
    Aid transparency is about giving all stakeholders in development cooperation information about projects and aid flows. To me, this is the basis for stakeholders, particularly beneficiaries to provide feedback, to voice their interests, to highlight side-effects, to point out interrelations that a project may have overlooked. I agree that taking account of complexity cannot be achieved by a set of tools. But I do believe that if many stakeholders on the ground can voice their perspective, the complex reality will become much more apparent to project management.

  3. This is amazing – I’m just writing up my PhD including that we need systemic evaluation in peacebuilding….and I haven’t found much on CAS…and now there is loads emerging.
    Thank you for this, and thank you for reminding me about ‘A Pattern Language’ – I haven’t read it for years.
    Yes – lets have a BIG debate on why we need systemic thinking and not just the dominance of linear approaches, and lets hope the ideas get listened too sooner rather than later….
    Is there a good space where we can gather online and share the ideas and developments in our related fields?

  4. I find this discussion and the new thinking to capturing compexities in programming through appropriate models interesting.
    I have been for sometime now struggling with capturing impact of our programmes through the use of the logframe, which has so much assumptions and linearity in the generation of outputs to impact(results chain) and end up frustrated due to the challenge of talking about attribution without considering contribution of others in the creation of impact.
    I have also tried to intergrate outcome mapping techniques with the logframe approach to atleast merge the two thinking into a hybrid(refer to outcome mapping learning community) with minimal results…this has only led to more blockades and confusion, not technically but operationally.
    I believe that these different approaches should be made to coalesce through sharing best practises and continuing these discussions, so that we move towards the reality, that programmes are more complex as conventional thinking presupposes.

  5. […] given programmatic and on-the-ground realities. Luckily there are efforts underway by agencies to modify logframes to be more flexible and adaptive, as well as to quantify qualitative stories of change at the […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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, Evaluation, Facilitation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Meetings, Organisations, Resilience, Self organisation, Strategy