March 12, 2012

Taming fragility?

This is a guest post by Frauke de Weijer (pictured), policy and fragile states specialist at the excellent ECDPM think tank. 

In a previous post on this blog, Ben explored the potential of complex systems research for thinking about statebuilding and fragility.

In this guest post, I would like to take this discussion one step further by asking what the specific implications are for development policy and practice if we start treating fragility as a wicked problem.

Since I came across the term ‘wicked problems’ a few years ago, I have been convinced that state fragility can indeed be described as a wicked problem. The trick with wicked problems is that they are actually a set of problems (or messes, as Russell Ackoff would describe them), some of which are more technical (or tame) in nature and others are wicked again.

Our tendency, in the development world, is to treat them all as technical; i.e. as problems to which the solutions are already known and simply need to be applied. This is what contributes to the consistent failure in addressing state fragility.

This is not to say that applying a different approach, i.e. a ‘complexity theory approach’, will fix the problem. Wicked problems are not particularly ‘fixable’, which is exactly why they are wicked in the first place! What it means is that we have to start from the premise that we do not know the solutions and that we have to discover those solutions as we go along. This is also what Ben speaks about when he says to ‘avoid silver bullet strategies and attempt multiple parallel experiments’.

How to apply these ideas in practice? Fragile states should not be seen as playing grounds for experimentation, especially not for the international community. Yet, in many instances it is possible to test out different ideas; create the conditions for different endogenous solutions to come about; to allow for learning to flow and for strategies to be continuously adapted to the emerging insights of what it would take for a complex social system to change. The key lies in creating feedback loops and learning systems, something the international development community is notoriously bad at.

In a separate article on ECDPM’s Talking Points blog, I have made a further attempt to translate some of the principles stemming from complexity theory into actual practice in fragile states. In my mind, a number of starting points can be described:

1) We have to start from the premise that we do not understand the complexity and interconnectedness within a social system and that we do not know what the solutions are.

2) New ways forward need to be found through ‘wrestling the problems to the ground’; i.e. by enabling local actors to identify potential solutions, test these, and learn from these.

3) Societal change is painful, takes time, is unpredictable and does not follow well-established paths. For external actors engaging in such settings, conflict-sensitivity is key, but the principle of doing no harm is naïve. It is a matter of mitigating these risks to the best of our ability.

4) In rare cases does the national development strategy reflect a genuine consensus of the people, and ownership is often limited to a small group. This raises questions on whether the principle of alignment with national government strategies can be maintained as a self-evident choice.

5) Long-term engagement and having an over-the-horizon strategic vision is essential in fragile states. However, as long as international development continues to work on the basis of current management models, its impact on fragile states will remain limited.

6) For a new approach to fragility to emerge, the policy making and operational systems in use in development cooperation need to undergo fundamental change. It means going beyond a mentality in which experts know the solutions, and putting ‘learning systems’ at the center of development policy.

I elaborate on these principles in a new article on ECDPM’s Talking Points blog website. Do take a look and share any thoughts there.

Join the conversation! 7 Comments

  1. One of the main reasons the development field has a difficult time dealing with fragile states is due to its lack of an appropriate intellectual framework for understanding what ails them.

    As I argue in this article on social cohesion ( ), the problems they face are more fundamental in nature than other countries. And the standard aid tools that donors use do not address the structural, psychological, and institutional issues–the software of state building–that hold them back. Indeed, in some cases, the standard recommendations may actually make finding solutions harder.

    While I like the original post and endorse the ideas proposed here, I am somewhat hesitant to call fragile states a “wicked problem.” Although they do face a set of interrelated challenges and would gain from much more experimentation, a deeper understanding of the issues involved, less prejudiced by our own ideas about how states are supposed to work, would yield a framework that helped us see what practical policies might actually help them. They are wicked only to the extent that we lack the knowledge (and self-discipline) to analyze them effectively.

    Learning systems are key. But I would place the emphasis on local people more than donors. Therefore, I like “enabling local actors to identify potential solutions, test these, and learn from these” more than the last point.
    Fragile states are unlikely to improve on the basis of what aid agencies do, especially in an age when their influence is declining. But the more individual actors and groups within countries have the knowledge and skills to analyze and understand their own problems, the more likely they will be able to lead efforts to change from within.

  2. Frauke, interesting post thank you.

    I have often said (to anyone who cares to listen) that trying to understand Afghanistan is a bit like trying to understand the rules of cricket. If you aren’t born in a country that plays cricket, learning the vocabulary and the techniques from the first days you can hold a bat or a ball in your hands, while the game may be entertaining to watch for a short while, how it really works will always remain a mystery. This analogy may be a bit simplistic, but i think we are talking about broadly the same concept.

    Being a bit more serious, I would like to pick out what I think is the key component of the approach you outline above. My experience (admittedly only from Afghanistan and Iraq) is that post-conflict development is absolutely dependent on local demand (not for development in principle, but for the specifics of the development “package”). Demand and ownership can start with a very concentrated few and spread outwards, but a solid and stable core of local demand for (and partnership in) post-conflict state building is a precondition for any meaningful development engagement.

    Part of the problem with Afghanistan is that far from working outwards from the core that existed when I first came here in 2002, so much of the international effort in the last decade has unwittingly eaten away at that fragile core until now, there is virtually nothing left of it at all. For example, we have imposed alien and offensive cultural norms in the name of human rights, we have allowed foreign soldiers to invade people’s jealously guarded personal space, we have concentrated on destroying institutions (however inadequate at least they were present) and building complex facades in their place, the list goes on… We have criticised, assaulted and undermined so much of what gave the people of Afghanistan an identity because it didn’t fit with our view of how a country should be, and 10 years on we wonder why they are unimpressed?

    I certainly don’t have a romantic or idealised view of Afghanistan or the Afghans (they seem to be quite similar to most other nations – a mixture of good, bad and ugly, but mostly somewhere in between), but I do think that if we had spent more time listening to their aspirations and less time preaching about our values, together we would have achieved a whole lot more. Sometimes in my despair at our self-isolating hubris, I wonder if it would have been possible to get it much more wrong if we had tried.

  3. Thank you for this post, I would agree with most of it. Three remarks though:

    1. The ideas are interesting, but meanwhile the main development actors are locking themselves in long term “official views” like Paris, Accra and Busan. Although lip-service is paid to flexibility, in essence a consensus approach can be only rigid. How do you analyse these agreements within your framework? do you hint at these frameworks in point 6? why don’t you say so?
    2. Country ownership is indeed problematic. On the one end, because it is the opinion of the powers that be that count, locking in the existing power relations; on the other hand the goal of ” consensus planning” reads very much like conventional wisdom to me. Meaning the conventions of the powers that be, in the North and the South.
    3. ” fools rush in” seems to be a bigger problem and sign of naivety than ” first do no harm”. If an actor is not prepared or capable to apply a nimble, evaluative and informed approach, keeping out seems like a better alternative than rushing in with a static one-sided approach e.g. arming the Taliban against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan.

  4. […] would like to point your attention to an excellent guest post on Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos Blog by Frauke de Weijer, policy and fragile […]

  5. […] such as Australia, have committed half their budgets to them. These countries have proven to be a wicked problem for donors in the past because they are unable to creatively rethink their own paradigms for how […]

  6. […] such as Australia, have committed half their budgets to them. These countries have proven to be a wicked problem for donors in the past because they are unable to creatively rethink their own paradigms for how […]


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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, Evolution, Influence, Innovation, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Networks, Strategy