The most interesting story this week for anyone interested in complexity and aid  issues is the news that Bill Frej, head of the United States Agency for International Development’s mission to Afghanistan from May 2009 until June 2010, will be the first ‘development diplomat in residence’ at the Santa Fe Institute, the leading global think-tank on complexity science.

Bill will be collaborating with a range of SFI experts on ways to establish evidence-based standards for US foreign policy and aid programs in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Here is a radio interview he gave to Craig Barnes of KSFR and below are excerpts from another recent interview in which Bill “outlined his plans to apply SFI-style thinking to the complex adaptive system of Afghanistan”.

Q: What prompted this Santa Fe ‘development diplomat in residence’ experiment?

Bill: President Barack Obama appointed Rajiv Shah, a young medical doctor, as the USAID administrator. Shah is coming from a science background. He worked for the Gates Foundation on HIV-AIDS research and program development. He went on to become Undersecretary of Science and Research at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Obama and Shah bring to international development a new approach. One of their major foci is using evidence-based, scientific research to help better inform foreign policy. It is applying scientific rigor to the question of how you define success in conflict countries such as Afghanistan.

I was really planning on retiring after Afghanistan. Shah came to visit. We got involved in a lot of discussions about science, the importance of research, where he’s taking the agency, his interest in employing a new science and technology director who will work as one of his chief advisers.

Q: Why the Santa Fe Institute?

Bill: Raj knew the Santa Fe Institute. I said I was going to Santa Fe, and I wanted to stay connected to the Foreign Service. I was talking to Jeremy Sabloff. I put together a proposal, and they liked it… my overall interest is conflict. There is a great conflict team here at SFI… but not in the social-policy arena. Paula Sabloff, (Jeremy Sabloff’s wife), one of the leading cultural anthropologists, has a real background and interest in tribes. The issue of tribes, how they live, and work and operate in Afghanistan, has never really been taken into consideration in our formulation of policy direction. Tribes do have and will continue to play a significant role. The tribal dynamics, how decisions are made within tribes, how tribal elders respond to issues in local-level justice — we really are not thinking enough about these issues.

Q: What’s different about this approach compared to what’s already in place for determining if programs are successful?

Bill: We’ve had many performance-monitoring systems in place over the years. Evaluation is a very important part of what we do at the country level. But we’re always looking at outputs, you know, x number of kids, x number of teachers, as the metric that defines success or failure. We now have to broaden that.

We have to look at the evolution of the relationship between metrics and systems. We have to look at how do we really move countries from poverty to prosperity. It’s not going to be purely output based. I think this is a new approach that Shah is bringing to the agency. He’s taking performance-based modeling seriously and looking at it in a completely different way.

Q: What will you be doing as ‘development diplomat in residence’ in the next year?

Bill: I’ll be working to develop two workshops. The first workshop we’ll focus on is looking at the relationship between short-term stabilization programs transitioning to sustainable development. We’re using Afghanistan and Pakistan as the two countries we’ll focus on. I’ve outlined a number of questions we’ll try to answer. 

Q: What are you looking for with a new monitoring and measurement system?

Bill: I think we’re looking at a whole new set of metrics to better define success. Is success the complete dismemberment and destruction of al-Qaida? Or is it more than that? I think the president would agree it is more. Foreign policy, USAID metrics right now are not really based on much science whatsoever. We’re spending billions of dollars in aid in 85 countries around the world. I think we need to be able to articulate what success is better than we have been.

Aid on the Edge has been in touch with Santa Fe and hopes to be speaking to Bill shortly about his work, so watch this space for more on this intriguing initiative.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. The issue of tribes, how they live, and work and operate in Afghanistan, has never really been taken into consideration in our formulation of policy direction.


  2. ‘Bout time! Bill’s a good guy, and hopefully will be able to introduce some rational thinking back into USAID from the position!

    The US hasn’t had a joined-up strategy to aid in Afghanistan yet, curious to see what he has to say when given a complexity-based platform from which to opine.

  3. spectacular news! i won’t count on bill to single-handedly revolutionize the way we think about development and diplomacy, but i hope this is one small (yet influential) step in the right direction.


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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.


Accountability, Chaos, Conflict and peace building, Evaluation, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy