Books and chapters / ILRI / LIVESTOCKFISH / Participation / Pastoralism / Policy / Scaling

What is ‘complexity thinking’ and what does it have to do with development/aid?


Dave Algoso has a guest post on the blog of Oxfam’s Duncan Green reviewing three books about complexity thinking and development discourse.

‘In the last few years, complexity thinking has found its way into general development discourse. Anyone reading this blog or others has likely encountered some of the terminology, even if the technical pieces remain elusive to you. Ready to go deeper than the blogs? Time to read a book.

‘Fortunately, the last few years have also given the development sector three relevant books: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity; and Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development.

The latter book by Burns and Worsley (available in hardback, paperback and eBook formats) will be of interest to all those looking to make a greater difference in international development (that is, in development parlance, to take solutions to scale).

Navigating Complexity in International Development: Facilitating Sustainable Change at Scale, published by Practical Action Publishing, Oct 2015, 198 pages.

Until recently, Worsley served as head of development partnerships for the CGIAR Research Program on Livestock and Fish, based at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Nairobi, Kenya. In late 2016, he took up the position of Ethiopia country director for Mercy Corps.

Algoso has this to say about the Burns and Worsley book:

Navigating Complexity (Burns and Worsley) starts . . . with a critique of development and a review of complexity thinking . . . . Burns/Worsley admit upfront that complexity theorists would find their treatment light while practitioners would find it heavy. In a single chapter, they cover just enough of the conceptual and technical side to then move readers on to the practical implications for development.

In particular, they cover three concrete approaches: participatory systemic inquiry, systemic action research, and nurtured emergent development. They tie each back to complexity concepts, with detailed case studies. Participatory approaches, learning, and network-building feature heavily. . . .

Few of the development approaches described actually stem from the discipline of complexity thinking. Rather, the authors have worked backwards from various approaches to explain their success in terms of complexity. It suggests the possibility for developing entirely new practices with complexity applied more deliberately.

Publisher’s synopsis of the book
International development interventions often fail because development experts assume that our world is linear and straightforward when in reality it is complex, highly dynamic and unpredictable. Things rarely happen in the way that they were planned. The dominance of logical planning models in international development therefore needs to be challenged and replaced by a complexity-based understanding of how change happens.

Navigating Complexity in International Development describes three such processes. Firstly it explores processes of ‘participatory systemic inquiry’ which allow complexity to be collectively seen and understood by stakeholders. Then it outlines two approaches to ‘engagement’: the more structured approach of ‘systemic action research’ and the more organic processes of ‘nurtured emergent development’.

The design and process of each are described clearly, allowing readers to utilize and quickly adapt the ideas to their own situations. They are illustrated through detailed case studies which range from water resource management in Uganda, to agriculture transformation in Egypt and Kenya, to education of girls in Afghanistan, and community responses to conflict in Myanmar. Each builds a detailed picture of how local people and practitioners were able to respond to complexity. The final section looks at issues of power, participation and policy that arise in emergent development processes.

Of particular interest to those in livestock development work is Chapter 6, where I describe a complexity approach to pastoralist livestock market management in Samburu, Kenya.—Stuart Worsley

This book is essential reading for planners, practitioners, policy-makers, students, and researchers in international development.

Table of Contents
Prelims [Figures, Boxes and Tables | Preface | Acknowledgements | Participatory research projects | Acronyms]
1 Failures of top-down development planning
2 How change happens
3 Catalysing large-scale and sustainable change
4 Seeing the system—participatory systemic inquiry
5 Systemic action research
6 Nurtured Emergent Development
7 Power in transformative change processes
8 Participatory processes in development
9 Implications for development

‘Burns/Worsley’s Navigating Complexity is the most practical guide to complexity in development that I’ve seen. It also does a great job of putting participatory methods in a new light. Key audiences: Direct managers, designers, and evaluators of projects.’—Dave Algoso, guest post on the ‘From Poverty to Power’ blog of Oxfam’s Duncan Green

‘Burns and Worsley bring an acute understanding of the practitioner’s art and science of development. Intangibles like participation, learning, and network development are at the core of ownership and appropriate action for social change for the poor. Navigating Complexity in International Development unlocks the analysis and dialogue needed to impact sustainable large-scale change. An important contribution for all of us working at the front end of development.’—Steve Hollingworth, President and CEO, Freedom from Hunger

‘This book makes an important case for engaging complex systems, and contributes theory and practice for those researching and intervening to improve the conditions of the poor. It challenges current linear development thinking and offers new methods to effectively engage complexity. Its reflective case studies give rise to a new hope that, with the right approach, development can do better.’ —Frank Rijsberman, CEO, CGIAR Consortium

‘The timely message of the book then is that we must adopt a collaborative systems orientation anchored in the realities of human participation when dealing with the complexity inherent in international change endeavours.’—Hilary Bradbury, Professor, Division of Management, Oregon Health and Science University, and Editor, Action Research

‘This book presents powerful and persuasive case-based evidence to show how systemic change can be achieved at scale.’—Robert Chambers, Research Associate and Professor Emeritus, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

‘One of the most thoughtful explorations on the nature of complexity in the development sector. A rare example of a book where the writing is accessible without trivializing the underlying theory. It provides a great platform from which the participative action research and complexity theory communities can develop an exciting new body of both theory and practice.’—Dave Snowden, Founder & Chief Scientific Officer, Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd

‘It is courageous to think in terms of complexity in an era where linear thinking and accountability set the tone. In my experience, working together, coping with power differences, energy, trial, error, reflection and learning, keeping an eye on the parts as well as the whole, using data as well as your senses are a few essential elements to make change processes developmental. The book is inspiring since it captures both practice and theoretical reflections.’—Annemiek Jenniskens, ex-director, SNV/Netherlands Development Organisation

‘For too long, development problems have been articulated as technical issues—reframed in ways that remove politics, power imbalances and economics from the analysis. In contrast, this valuable book draws upon original studies to demonstrate the case for taking account of complexity, emphasizing the importance of participatory action and reflection whilst recognizing the need to link bottom-up approaches with wider strategies for social change.’—Marjorie Mayo, Emeritus Professor of Community Development, Goldsmith’s College, University of London

Read the full review by Dave Algoso on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog: Which of these three books on complexity and development is right for you? Review/user’s guide, 16 Mar 2016.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s