Many people around the world were deeply saddened to hear of the death of Elinor Ostrom in June this year. By way of a tribute, this extended piece brings together some of her ideas on the implications of complexity science for development aid. It draws on material from a series of interviews I conducted with Professor Ostrom between 2009-2012 for use in my forthcoming book, and has been approved for publication by her colleagues at The Workshop, Indiana University.     

When Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in 2009, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences made the following statement:

[she] has challenged the conventional wisdom that common property is poorly managed and should be either regulated by central authorities or privatized. Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes, and groundwater basins, Ostrom concluded that the outcomes are, more often than not, better than predicted by standard theories.”

Challenging standard theories was a running theme Professor Ostrom’s work. Ideas of the commons and how they really worked were central to this, as was the analysis of institutions and the sustainability of social-ecological systems. Complexity was a particular interest: ideas of systems, self-organisation, the evolution of rules, institutions as emergent phenomena and resilience are all repeated motifs in her papers, books and speeches. Indeed, her 2009 Nobel Prize Lecture – she was the first and, to date, only woman to win the Economics Prize – builds on the distinction between simple and complex human systems, and closes with the following words:

We should continue to use simple models where they capture enough of the core underlying structure and incentives that they usefully predict outcomes. When the world we are trying to explain and improve, however, is not well described by a simple model, we must continue to improve our frameworks and theories so as to be able to understand complexity and not simply reject it.

She was on the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) Science Board for five years. Corresponding in 2011 while I was visiting the Institute, she wrote to tell me that it was one of her favourite places in the world. It is easy to imagine how the SFI approach naturally appealed to someone who had spent her life’s work breaking down disciplinary boundaries.

My small-scale engagement with Professor Ostrom started in 2009 following the publication of a report on complexity science and aid I led on while at ODI. She used it as reading material for her students in Autumn 2010 and kindly wrote back to tell me how useful she had found it. We subsequently had telephone and face-to-face interviews on the topic of complex systems, development and aid. These discussions, and of course her rich body of work,  helped to shape the ideas in my forthcoming book, which she warmly encouraged from the outset. I have used material from these interviews to write this post.


What is your view on complexity and the complexity sciences? What is the value of this approach?

I get so upset when people use complexity as a reason not to do things – complexity and context are essential for operating in many different situations. In order to make sure decisions are relevant, we have to understand the context of decisions, and the complexity of the situation. My take on complexity is that it is a key set of concepts which are essential for understanding how the world works. There are many situations where simple models don’t work – when there are 10, 15, 20 variables. For example, think about situations where problems are nested within each other or situations where there are many actors capable of actions, conflicting information about transmissions and payoffs and diverse outcomes. Here, the ideas of complexity can lend a hand by providing a means of analysis and understanding the reality of these action situations.

How would you apply these ideas to international aid agencies?

The last thing aid agencies want to do is analyse things as a complex system! (laughs) But how do you unpack systems without such analyses? In biology and ecology, there is a necessity of using complexity science and related ideas as a model – although it is not always acknowledged, they do have to use it. For example, in a situation with 10, 15, 20 species, how do you understand the potential impact of the elimination of one species, when one unit being eradicated would cause disaster rather than simply being important. We can’t address these questions without drawing on complexity theory in some way.

The lack of long timeframes and a lack of supporting cultures means that aid agencies don’t help people learn how to think about and change the structure of the situations they are facing. In many situations, this is because of colonial roots of aid, which did not respect local institutions – they didn’t understand them so they were treated as non-existent.

The difference between this approach and that of Darwin is stark – the care and diligence that was given to studying animal species in the 19th century is so evident, and it from this that we have evolutionary theory. But these countries also had people, but there was no attempt to understand their knowledge systems, the rules they had developed to manage various kinds of socio-ecological systems… Colonial powers assumed we have the answers, and destroyed social capital. Aid agencies, unfortunately, do much the same thing.

What are the biases of development aid that you see inhibiting the take-up of a more complex, realistic way of doing things?

Development aid asks the question: where can we pour money in to make the most difference in the most visible way (laughs). This is not especially amenable to complex ways of understanding the world. Most projects are 2-3 years, some are 7, but these are big engineering projects, and then they disappear.

‘Fitting’ is all important in this context. Many agencies today have blue prints for situation A, but they are so ingrained they can’t deal with B, C, D and E. Some employ very inspiring young people, but they are not keen to stay long in their organisation – 4-6 years max, they tend not to be sanguine about the future. This is understandable, but it also goes against what we know about bringing about social change.

Take the Sida work. We said, we want to understand the role you play in sustainable development – tell us what your best projects are. And we found that their best projects were relative failures because of exactly these issues.

The most fundamental change is to change the social science curriculum to change the way that development is taught. We need to get away from treating governance as top-down. The presumption of almost all work is that a hierarchy will work effectively, gather information from variety of sources and develop tactics of behaviour. In complex systems, there are many different areas, all moving in different directions and at different speeds, doing localised things which are relevant. The idea that a central processing unit that can gather up all of this information and make decisions about the whole system… the theories fall down.

I developed a framework to understand complex social-ecological systems, which builds on my work on governing the commons. This sets out the key design principles for complex systems which sit on the interface of society and ecology: watersheds, fisheries, increasingly the whole planet. Some of the reaction has been very enthusiastic – some people, the biologists, the ecologists, the complexity scientists, love it. Others hate it, they say it’s not science, it’s too complex.

What examples do you see of good development practice, which do take account of complexity?

I was at a conference recently in the north of Sweden, for the Childbirth Foundation, 1000 young people from 100 countries. They were trying to answer the question – how do you change the way the world works to develop more opportunities in developing countries. There were lots of ideas, using the market, ideas like cooking stoves and many others, all aimed at the broader goal of dealing with climate change, bringing about development. Some of these ideas have already been applied; some are still being tried out. But the key is that they are doing development in a way that has a chance of working.

And there were no international development agencies present. They should have been there, just to see what was being discussed. The key difference was that while international development agency way of thinking has seen a lot of failure, they haven’t picked up yet on the answer, which is that we must have multiple approaches, small and experimental and larger and more concrete. But apparently the taxpayer doesn’t like to see experimentation with their money!

Aid agencies tend to not involve staff in anything other than a project, and sometimes only for part of a project. And when the project ends, they leave. Mr Shivakumar, a colleague who worked on the Samaritan’s Dilemma, has done work with Action Aid in their Ethiopia programme. They will go to a site where they are trying to help farmers build up their capacity, say for public services. They are there for some time, but they try to do something 5 years before they are going to leave. They will call a meeting and say ‘we will fund 1 year for 100%, after that, we will drop to 80%, and you need to support 20%, then down to 60%, and so on… If we are doing something good, then you should want to carry it on. If not, that’s fine, the project closes. That is an example of an aid  philosophy that takes account of complexity.

Look at Grameen Bank, that started off slowly, and if it was cut down after 2 years it would never have turned into the institution it is today. But it worked because it was a system within a system within a system. It didn’t have public official waiting for a report on a Friday afternoon before they could go home. It had lots of people in localised situations who presented and developed rules for how things would work, providing some basic structure for example, you have to meet every week, we have to put money on the table, we have to be forgiving at times… These small-scale units proved to be very innovative and creative. Small-scale units can be very adaptive in changing – look at family units when a child arrives, or a job changes. They can deal with the complex, but they are guided by a different philosophy to development agencies. They don’t have to come up with winning solutions, they can learn from their own successes and diversity of other approaches, they can change things if they are not working.

There is a growing interest in resilience in development circles. Do you see this a promising line of enquiry?

Resilience and sustainability are very similar – these systems have similar properties. It is another attempt to get this kind of thinking into institutions, and just the latest one. The work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre is very important here, and they have been successful in influencing a number of research agendas. But I think a lot of the time policy people are just using the language without knowing what they are talking about (waves hand in mock exasperation). When I did my work on social-ecological systems I was very careful to build on the work of ecologists and social scientists, so it was a truly integrated framework. The trouble with much of the development policy work around resilience I see is that so much of it doesn’t really try to engage with the science of resilience, but instead uses as a catch-all to further particular institutional interests. We need some real serious thinking on this issue if it is going to make a meaningful contribution.

What do you think are the implications of the science of complexity for big conferences like Planet Under Pressure and Rio+20?

We are lucky that there is growing interest in this area, from academics and researchers across the world. The work you have been leading on your book – I think this is work of immense value and importance for the development sector. The crucial question is whether international agencies are ready to hear the message and willing to act on the lessons. I know there are others leading similar work in other closely related sectors like environmental sustainability, community development and social entrepreneurship – about the complexity inherent in different resource systems and under different rules.

We need a broader approach to these systems. What we are lacking at the moment is a shared framework. Without this, how are we to ensure our knowledge accumulates? A shared framework of complex systems can help us ensure knowledge in these different fields is not isolated. There are more people working on this, and they are working together more, but not enough is being done yet.

What do you see as the key to the success of Rio+20?

There needs to be more connection around this challenge through a shared lens of complex social-ecological systems, and these large-scale events provide an opportunity to do this. The key principle informing all of this has to be taking a more evolutionary, polycentric approach to policy making.

This is the key challenge we face, and it is only going to grow with time. I am hopeful though. If there is one thing I think I have learned it is that just because we have a certain emphasis in our institutions today, it doesn’t mean we are stuck with it forever.

 What three things would you change among aid agencies to get them to take more account of complex realities?

The number one thing is the ‘spend it or lose it’ mentality – it is common to most bureaucracies, but getting it changes is essential if aid is going to be tailored to the complex realities of development. This institutional change will allow many others to come about, and so it is a very important one.

Number two is getting aid agencies to be more of a learning enterprise and less of a doing enterprise. This means feedback, training, reflection. This means not assuming we have the answer. We need to create an environment where discussion and debate are openly welcomed, and where redundancy is not always seen as bad, just excessive redundancy.

Third, we need to reward people for developing imaginative ideas that draw on the complexity of the real world, that leave people in developing countries more autonomous, less dependent, and more capable of crafting their own future.


There are of course many tributes to Professor Ostrom, by people far more qualified than me to write them. For my own small part, I feel grateful to simply to have known her: for her time and support; for how generous she was with the benefits of her towering intellect; and for her gentle, playful sense of humour. The fact that someone of her stature could take the time and care to engage with and mentor me and so many others like me around the world speaks volumes about the extraordinary person she was.

She will be deeply missed – as the Indiana University president said in his statement, we have “lost an irreplaceable and magnificent treasure”.

“We have to think through how to choose a meaningful life
where we’re helping one another in ways that really help the Earth.”

Elinor Ostrom, 1933-2012

Join the conversation! 13 Comments

  1. […] roots Aid on the Edge of Chaos’s Ben Ramalingam presents a collection of thoughts on the “implications of complexity science for development aid” by Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom who passed away in […]

  2. […] Conversations on Complexity: A Tribute to Elinor Ostrom « Aid on the Edge of Chaos. […]

  3. […] sich auch die zugrundeliegende Vorlesung. Auf Aid on the Edge of Chaos hat Ben Ramalingam seine „Conversations on Complexity“ mit der kürzlich verstorbenen Nobelpreisträgerin Elinor Ostrom zusammengetragen. Auch hier […]

  4. […] on the Edge of Chaos has a wonderful tribute to Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel Prize-winning academic who, sadly, passed away in June. Her work was in complexity […]

  5. […] sector – from the social science curriculum to the work of international aid agencies. READ MORE This entry was posted on Friday, August 17th, […]

  6. […] Thirdly, my colleague Luc Lapointe and I are working on a new model for voluntourism based on common pool resources (CPRs) and complexity theory – two items of great importance to the late Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom. […]

  7. Thanks for taking time to put this together and post it. I had approached Elinor about working with us on an institutional mapping project a couple of years ago but time commitments didn’t work out. Her work, however, is very important as we explore social architecture and the institutional structures and processes that operate in various societal contexts.

  8. […] ‘Colonial powers assumed we have the answers, and destroyed social capital. Aid agencies, unfortunately, do much the same thing.’ From Ben Ramalingam’s interview on complexity and development with the late Elinor Ostrom […]

  9. […] has a lot to say about development.   Here, Ben Ramalingam recounts some of Ostrom’s “ideas on the implications of complexity science for development aid“.  What are your thoughts? Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  10. […] in Aid (Olsen) – Ben Ramalingam pulls together some of the implications of complexity science for development aid as a tribute to Professor Elinor Ostrom further to an ODI report on complexity science and aid. […]

  11. […] of the real world, that leave people in developing countries more autonomous, less dependent, and more capable of crafting their own future››. TwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  12. […] Take a look at the article and let me know what do you think in the comments section below. […]

  13. Ben, many thanks for this post. Towards the end, it gets right to the issue of what exactly, in practical terms, development/aid agencies can do to take greater account of complexity theory in their programming. I haven’t read your book yet, or indeed all of your blog posts, but I’m interested in how you have explored this theme (i.e. what exactly we should change about aid/development in view of complexity theory) in the last year or two. So the following questions relate to a few of your posts, and a few reviews of your book.

    First, the issue of taxpayers’ appetite for experimentation (i.e. not much). This issue can never have been more salient, surely, amid today’s constraints on all government budgets. In football, at Chelsea football club, Claudio Ranieri’s constant squad rotation led to him being labelled ‘the Tinker Man’, then to jeers of “you don’t know what you’re doing”, and finally, to his sacking. Football fans, and football chairmen want results, and fast. They’re paying for them. Likewise taxpayers and aid. Trying to think of international aid as an experiment, not simply of aid as the straightforward implementation of a solution, evidently has its merits. But it’s a hard sell for politicians: where there is any scope for experimentation, it’s accompanied by huge pressure to ‘fail again, fail better’.

    Second, I am very intrigued by the idea of adaptation and flexibility in any (development) programming, in the idea of using monitoring and evaluation not just to learn lessons after project completion, but to learn them in ‘real time’ and to continually tweak the programme so that it responds better to emerging challenges. At the moment, most donors’ multi-year programmes will have annual reviews, mid-term reviews/evaluations, and project completion reports/evaluations. Do you think that these are enough to incentivise adaptive thinking in programme implementation? And if not, why not?

    Third, I see that the appetite to apply complex adaptive systems and complexity science in development circles has, in some quarters, led to, or contributed to the savage attack on the dreaded project logframe, which requires the project designer to consider how inputs support activities, how activities lead to outputs, outputs result in outcomes, and outcomes eventually progress to impacts. Such logframes are seen as the symptom of the turgid, inflexibility of the development programmer’s mind.

    But I wonder where the attack on the logframe leaves us wheen it comes to age old maxims (often military) about campaign planning. True, Army strategists accept that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy.” But they also argue that if “strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory” it’s also the case that “tactics without strategy is the fastest route to defeat.” Napoleon reportedly stated that “a plan is useless. The act of planning is indispensable.” And then there’s “failing to plan is planning to fail.” So what is the response to those (ok, me) who say that people who want to throw out the logframe are leading us into a situation where we fail to plan? Where we fail to spell out our basic thinking about what leads to what else? Where we fail to even express where it is that we’re heading… and hope that we somehow end up in a desirable place nonetheless? Some donors also use Theories of Change, a tool to underpin the logframe. Should we get rid of that too, because it is not complex or adaptive enough? A particular concern of mine is that even designing a theory of change or a logframe properly is not a trivial task. They might seem simplistic to complexity theorists, but to the humble bureaucrat, they can be really quite complicated (maybe even complex!).

    So the final question is this: more data, more sophisticated ways of interpreting that data, and smarter ways of applying the interpretation – – who is going to broker all this complexity theory to aid agencies. And when we find that person/group of people, what exactly will they advise donors to do (beyond Elinor Ostrom’s reflections in the blog)?

    This is a fascinating area of work, and I will be keen to read more about its implications.


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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.


Biology, Evolution, Influence, Institutions, Knowledge and learning, Leadership, Organisations, Public Policy, Resilience, Strategy