Where am I on my journey to use the awareness about complex systems in my work in economic development? That is a question I have asked myself more often recently.
There is an increasing awareness among the development practitioners and even donors that we need to change our strategy if we want to achieve large-scale, systemic change in the countries we work in. I am partly optimistic when looking at signals coming out of big donors, particularly USAID. The agency is for example implementing a new framework called “Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting (CLA)” in some of their country strategies with the aim of making these strategies effectively living documents that adapt to local realities. USAID is also funding a new program called “Leveraging Economic Opportunities (LEO),” focusing on “a systems approach to markets, acknowledging the complex interrelationships among market actors, market and household systems, climate change, nutrition, the policy environment, and sociocultural factors, including poverty and gender.” How does that sound? Also out of USAID comes a recent discussion note on Complexity Aware Monitoring.
But then again, there is still a strong push towards managing for concrete results, predicting clearly what a project will achieve in a given time period with a given budget and against what numbers it will be held accountable (or indeed, against what numbers will be decided if the organization implementing the project will receive the money). A good example for this is DFID’s push for Value for Money (VfM) or SDC’s increased interest in a cost-benefit analysis, which basically assumes that one can predict what value a project is creating against the money it is spending.
An interesting paper has been published by the Springfield Centre here in the UK that describes these two seemingly conflicting trends: “Evidence-based policy and systemic change: conflicting trends?“
In any case, I still strongly believe that complexity is not going away. In the last two years I was involved in some exciting initiatives around complexity and economic development.
I had the chance to be part of the SEEP Network’s Systemic M&E Initiative, where we developed a set of seven principles, published in a report called “Monitoring and Measuring Change in Market Systems – Rethinking the Current Paradigm”. The principles are intended to guide development practitioners in reflecting on their monitoring practices and evaluation specialists on evaluating complex development programs. We also took the principles and used them as an analytical framework to look at the Kenya Market Assistance Program’s M&E framework and developed a case study report. The principles are creating a very good echo in the practitioner community and are presented repeatedly in various fora, for example the annual conference of the American Evaluation Association or a recent event organized by Practical Action in London on Systemic Approaches to Development (where I had the privilege to be a speaker).
I also had the privilege to work together with the bright guys at Mesopartner and discuss issues around complexity and our work in economic development. This lead to the establishment of the Systemic Insight Platform, where we share our experiences and learnings as well as various resources around complexity, systems thinking and economic development. We also developed the Systemic Insight Approach, which is intended to provide guidance for practitioners that are entering into a complex environment to implement a change initiative. Part of this journey was a three day training with Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge about Complexity and the Cynefin framework, which really blew my mind and gave me lots of new insights. Shawn Cunningham, one of the partners at Mesopartner and I also published a Mesopartner Working Paper with a focus on explaining the theory behind Systemic Insight, titled “Gaining systemic insight to strengthen economic development initiatives. Drawing on systems thinking and complexity theories to improve developmental impact.”
Looking forward, one of my goals for this year is to become more practical and concrete in how to measure systemic change. I want to contribute to the development of better guidance for practitioners on how they can measure their impact on the wider system without denying the specificities of complex systems. Big questions here remain: can we tackle attribution in a complex system? what can really be considered as a systemic change? what methodologies are suitable to show change on a system level? One step in this direction takes the above-mentioned discussion note by USAID on complexity aware monitoring, giving some concrete examples of methodologies that can be used to become more aware of changes in the wider system. I want to see more of this, more concrete and practicable ideas that can be tested in projects in the field.