Last week saw a remarkable meeting in Washington, bringing together USAID staff with scientists and practitioners working on complex systems. This post reflects on the event and outlines some of the emerging lessons.


There have been a number of meetings on the topic of complexity and development in different locations around the world in the last few years (see here for a list of the ones that I know about). The one I have just attended in Washington was the first such event put on by a major donor, for its own staff, with a focus on what it should be doing differently as a result of the insights of complex systems research (see more about the agenda and participants here)

Organised by Tjip Walker and colleagues at the Bureau for Policy, Planning and Learning, the day started with an exploration of ideas from complex systems research. It then moved onto case studies of specific applications followed by a series of facilitated discussions on what USAID should be doing to take account of the principles of complex systems research in their work.


In his opening remarks, David Kilkullen of Caerus Associates shared some pertinent reflections on the importance of complex systems thinking for modern foreign policy problems. David is a political anthropologist by training and a world-leading counter-terrorism expert by trade, and his talk illustrated his wide-ranging knowledge. He argued that the key to addressing complex systems was a combination of rigorous, data driven approaches to track patterns and dynamics of change with ‘deep dives’ – namely, on-the-ground research to test hypotheses and sense the emerging issues. He gave the example of Somali piracy being seen as a closed and static problem – “send the Navy in, dammit!” – to an open dynamic problem that was the manifestation of intricate interactions between multiple actors following their own interests. These actors included transnational criminal networks, shipping companies, insurance firms, security agencies and – last but not least – aid agencies.

The first chaired session saw Chris Wood, deputy chief of the Santa Fe Institute present on how his organisation – widely acknowledged as the leading institute in complex systems research – was dealing these issues. His presentation was eclectic and communicated some challenging ideas with a light touch. Chris highlighted that complexity wasn’t a science – yet – but a slowly coalescing set of ideas, methods and tools. Michael Quinn Patton gave a characteristically thought-provoking presentation, with evaluation as a starting point, but with references to strategy formation, the nature of systems, and the nature of social change. I gave a presentation on my $0.02 worth as to why development agencies need to engage with complexity research and the potential benefits. (you can download my presentation in pdf form here).

The next ‘case study’ session focused on concrete applications of complex systems thinking, ranging from terrorism and civil wars, systems mapping of conflicts and the importance of ‘design thinking’. Highlights for me included:

· the analysis of civil war dynamics presented by Aaron Clauset, which powerfully illustrated the kinds of insights that can be derived from existing data sets. Aaron’s detailed analysis of PRIO data yielded some fascinating hypotheses about the structure of different kinds of violent insurgencies and conflicts. As Aaron suggested, some of the most valuable lessons are about things that won’t work.

· Rob Ricigliano’s presentation of a system dynamics map, a tool popularised by Peter Senge in his work on learning organisations, but which is being applied in many other settings. Rob showed how his work in South Sudan helped develop a map of the complex feedback loops that can spin off from, and fundamentally challenge, pretty much any external intervention.

· Alexa Courtney talked about the need to understand and embrace ‘design thinking’ of the kind that Apple and others have made their core competency. Takeaway: the key is to build innovative platforms that unlock existing capacities, rather than deliver over-specified, top-down solutions.


Later sessions proved equally fascinating, and were built around a technique called ‘journey mapping’ and run by Richard Tyson, an inspiring facilitator who specialises in innovation strategies. The participants worked together in small groups to think through what should be done differently in the face of a world characterised by interlocking complex adaptive systems. This session was especially liberating because Richard called for all of the presenters to take off their ‘expert hats’ and engage with the issues on an equal footing with the conference participants.

The final session had USAID staff reflecting in plenary on lessons from the event and key next steps. Highlights for me included:

· The need to admit where things aren’t working and look for alternative ways of thinking and working. This includes areas such as fragile states and conflict, resilience, urbanisation, growth dynamics, global nature of food security, health systems strengthening – the list goes on…

· The need to pilot complex systems ideas with a clear analysis of where they might add value. This means digging deep into assumptions we currently hold which may be inappropriate and testing the alternative assumptions of complexity research which could prove more relevant to the problems we face.

· Applying a portfolio approach across the full range development investments – which means focusing on the simple stuff where that is what matters most, but not denying or ignoring complexity where it is present. Notions of risk and reward matter a great deal, and needs to be thought about in a more strategic fashion.

· The need to make adaptive management a watchword for all aid programmes, enabling programmes to evolve along with the context they face. As a starting point, this means engaging with critical problems in the spirit of scientific inquiry and experimentation, grounded in a clear understanding of what we want to achieve, but with more flexibility as to how we achieve those goals

· The need for better quality dialogue within the organisation across disciplines, and across organisational boundaries – silos are a reality of working life, but the some of the most important issues we face seem to fall through the cracks in our organisational matrices. The best way we have so far of addressing this is to ensure better, more participatory dialogue on shared challenges.


Reflecting on the event afterwards over a couple of beers with a couple of  fellow speakers, we were struck by five things.

First, USAID-ers are sharp operators. I must have spoken to 80% of the 75-plus participants and everyone was critically engaged with the key issues facing their area of work, displayed fluency in their specific fields, were self-aware and good communicators. There was also a lot of self-deprecating humour apparent on the day, which made for a relaxed and collegiate atmosphere. USAID is not without its problems, of course – just as in all organisations, aid-related or otherwise. And there was no doubt a degree of self-selection going on – those staffers interested in a meeting in complexity science may well be those with higher-than-average GPAs. But I came away feeling that this was an agency with a lot going for it intellectually. If a smart, well-trained, scientifically literate & dedicated cadre of staff is a prerequisite for dealing with issues of complexity and uncertainty, then USAID seems to be ahead of the curve.

Second, the politics of aid – both global and local – matter a great deal, and they do not always make for a fertile ground for engaging with complexity. The recent cuts proposed to US foreign aid are one manifestation, but there are numerous others. In the face of this, there is a need for strong aid leadership, which can play the short-term political game while keeping a clear eye on the need for new ways of thinking about & doing things. Not easy, but essential.

Third, on the bureaucracy of aid. There are some – some say too few – examples of the weight of the aid system being navigated deftly, while of course ensuring the necessary accountabilities. If we are going to take on the so-called ‘aid counterbureaucracy‘, it may be vital to understand these instances of where the system didn’t inhibit innovation and learning, and use them to justify and inspire more such efforts.

Fourth, on the ideas of complexity, it was great to have experts from across the complexity spectrum, from ‘hard scientists’ like Chris Wood and Aaron Clauset to evaluators like Michael Quinn Patton, to conflict specialists like David Kilkullen, Rob Ricigliano and Alexa Courtney. I have been to a few such ‘cross-disciplinary’ events this year and this was one was unique in that everyone seemed to strive for, and perhaps even reach some common ground. Personally, I think it was because everyone was open to learn and put their own preconceptions aside.  For a while, anyway 🙂

Finally, given how wedded the aid system is to assumptions that are in direct contrast to the implications of complex systems research, putting on this event was a courageous move by USAID and PPL. The gamble paid off – the event was met with appreciation and positive feedback across the broad from the participants. By the end of the day many of the participants were even more convinced of the need to move away from the methodological and philosophical monoculture that increasingly limits aid efforts. A small but clear manifestation of the old adage: courage begets courage.

USAID’s PPL is working on various forms of follow-up, both in terms of documenting the event and on how to take some of the suggestions forward. I will share more details on this important initiative soon.

Join the conversation! 5 Comments

  1. I was simultaneously thrilled that PPL was sanctioning and sponsoring this event as well as so very upset that i wasn’t able to attend (due to a last-minute trip to Haiti). Thanks so much, Ben, for your enthusiastic participation and your insightful summary of the event.

  2. […] one of the speakers at the event, posted a summary of the day on his blog. I highly recommend to read his post here. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  3. Thanks very much indeed for this very interesting post. And well done to USAID for taking such a brave step.
    As a development practitioner, I have a lot of affinity with the complexity approach, as it in my view much better captures the realities I am faced with in my work. Yet, the aid bureaucracy keeps on demanding çlear results’and a linear approach, as that is considered more scientific. I was therefore struck by your remark, where you called the complexity approach scientific. I think that is correct, but it seems then that mainstream science does not see it that way? Otherwise, why is there en increasing call for evaluations and clear results, as the scientific answer to a doubting public and polity?
    Rinus van Klinken, SNV Tanzania

  4. […] Who is going to pay for open aid data experts? – Some days… – Cash transfers: What have we learned so far? What are the implications for policy? What more do we need to know? – *Development impact calls for knowledgeable development practitioners – Important communication to all aid bloggers related to the urgent need for better coordination in the sector – Joint learning and partnership building events on scaling up the fight against rural poverty (good links) – The rise of the ‘new’ donors (India, China, etc.) – Global resilience requires novelty: a speech by Buzz Holling at SFU – USAID’s complexity journey – […]


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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.


Conflict and peace building, Evaluation, Innovation, Leadership, Meetings, Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy