One of the recurring themes here on Aid on the Edge of Chaos is that the complexity of real world systems is seldom recognised and acknowledged by international agencies, leading to systemic failures in aid policy and practice.

The work of renowned policy analyst Russell Ackoff provides a useful way of unpacking these issues. Drawing on research undertaken among scientists and policy makers, Ackoff suggested there are different ways to frame a problem, each of which carries significant implications for how these problems are analysed and dealt with.

The first level, messes, relates to systems or issues that do not have a well defined form or structure. There is often not a clear understanding of the problem faced in such systems, nor is there agreement about the solutions. Such systems often involve interconnected economic, technological, ethical and political issues. Ackoff suggests that all of the really important issues in the world start out as messes. For example, how will rising HIV/AIDS incidence in India be dealt with? This concerns money, technology, ethics, social relations, politics, gender relations, poverty, and all of these dimensions need to be dealt with simultaneously, and as a whole. Messes are also known more formally as wicked problems, and there is a growing literature on how to deal with these in different contexts.

The next level is ‘problems’ – systems that do have a form or structure, in that their dimensions and variables are known. The interaction of dimensions may also be understood, even if only partially. However, in such systems, there is no single clear cut way of doing things. Instead, there are many alternative solutions, depending on the constraints faced. For example, dealing with the sewage system in a particular city may rely on amount of money available, technology, political stance of leaders, climatic conditions, etc.

The final level is a puzzle, which is a well defined and well structured problem with a specific solution that can be worked out by analysis (Ackoff, 1974). In puzzles, agreement about both the definition of the issue and its solution is easy to reach. Analysing the financial position of an organisation might be such an issue.

In much of modern science and policy, Ackoff identified a bias towards ‘puzzle solving’. He argued that the real-world, complex,  messy nature of systems is frequently  not recognised, leading to simple puzzle-based solutions for what are in fact complex messes.

As another analyst has put it, some of the greatest mistakes are found when when dealing with a mess, when it’s dimensions are not seen in their entirety. Policy involves carving off a part of a mess, dealing with this part as if it were a problem and then solving it as  if it were a puzzle, all the while ignoring the linkages and connections to other dimensions of the mess (Pidd, 1996).

This puzzle-solving bias is universal, transcending sectoral and disciplinary boundaries effortlessly. Click here to see an application of this thinking to environmental issues in the Gulf of Mexico – before the BP spill.

However, it arguably finds some of its most startling manifestations in the international aid realm.

This is because while aid agencies face “perhaps the most complex and ill-defined questions facing human kind’ (Ellerman, cited in Roper and Pettit, 2002), their attitude toward the chance and risk inherent in their ventures is problematic to say the least.

The issue is succinctly summarised in this account by Dr Randolph Kent, former head of the UN in Rwanda, Somalia and Kosovo:

Venturing into the unknown normally means  that the organisation’s standard operating procedures can no longer deal with the types of  information it is receiving, and are no longer suitable. Such departures occur when the organisation is on the brink of collapse or is being forced – by means no longer in its control – to change its procedures fundamentally. It often takes a long time for an aid organisation to realise that it has hit the point where there is no alternative to change; often, that point comes too late’ (Kent, 2004).

Of course, there are many reasons for this conservatism, and there are also growing accounts of how to make aid agencies more aware of and open to their failures.

But there is a paradox here worth noting. Many of the mistakes made by aid agencies are well documented and repeated, on both the development and the humanitarian sides of the system. These mistakes often arise from the application of standard procedures with insufficient attention to the immediate context, to local capacity or to the historical roots of a given issue. And these mistakes come up time and time again in aid evaluations, to the extent that these key accountability mechanisms for the sector are almost unanimously seen as ‘telling us nothing new’.

All too often, aid agencies echo the Peter Cook quip: ‘I have studied my mistakes carefully and at length, and I am pretty certain I can repeat them exactly’.

So the issue is not, ‘how do we embrace failure’, but rather, how can we get aid agencies to abandon their existing – known, acceptable, safe – forms of failure? How can we get them to risk new and different, more innovative and unpredictable kinds of failure?

To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the secret to success is to move from failure to failure with energy, enthusiasm, honesty and creativity.

If this is true, then we can at least say that aid agencies are halfway there.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Excellent post! Really thought-provoking stuff.

    I’m wondering if you’ve seen the Owen Barder presentation on Aid Effectiveness After Paris, which is where I’m getting the framework for my question…

    Do you have any thoughts on not just where aid agencies ought to be moving (i.e. toward failure with energy, enthusiasm, honest, creativity), but on how we could incentivize or encourage them to move that direction?

    It seems that there are strong reasons why an aid agency would want to stick with known and acceptable forms of failure: they make agencies’ actions easy to justify; they don’t draw criticism from donors or governments; if they fail spectacularly, they can simply claim to have been following protocol, etc. Any thoughts on how to overcome these barriers, or if indeed these are barriers at all?

  2. […] the above suggests that for many simple or complicated issues where only one attempt is needed – think ‘puzzles’ or ‘problems’, as a previous Aid on the Edge post put it – experts can often outweigh crowds. In complex problems that require ‘multiple shots’, […]

  3. […] Who can admit failure? When I look at who is leading the charge in “admitting failure”, it seems to me that big failures can be admitted by organisations who interact mostly with a more sophisticated donor public: governments (World bank) or better informed people (who supports engineers without borders?). For these organisations it seems to me to be fully in line with the analysis of Marc: it is just something to run with the posse, without a real cost. It is signaling credibility. However, if they need a separate thematic line to treat with failure, what have their (transparent) evaluation and monitoring departments been doing until now? An asect that cannot be addressed with the failure approach is the recognition that systems are inherently complex. […]


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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, Evaluation, Evolution, Innovation, Knowledge and learning, Organisations, Public Policy