Tag Archives: holism

Holism vs. targeting in complex systems

Yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend about the question whether any form of targeting of our interventions towards a specific group of people or topic is already limiting our ability to come up with solutions that are fully adapted to the system. The concrete issues we were talking about were the poverty orientation of the development sector in general and as an example the focus on women economic empowerment as a form of development in particular. The hypothesis we had is basically that if we enter a system with predefined clients (e.g. ‘the poor’ or ‘poor women’) in the first place, our solution will always by biased in order to directly and quickly cater those clients’ needs. This argument goes into the direction of the silo thesis, i.e., that development organizations basically have their topics, such as human health, water and sanitation, markets, etc., and that, regardless of the system or problem they encounter, their solution always has something to do with their topic.

In contrast to that, systems theory tells us that we need to take a holistic view on the system and not limit ourselves to one specific domain if we want to really understand how a system works. So if we only look at the problem of how women get their water and come up with the solution of digging a well in each village, we might miss the whole actual problem women are facing. As a consequence, the entry point for us to support the women might be somewhere completely else, for example local governments, traditional structures, etc.

Then again, what we as development practitioners want to achieve – be it in the short or the long run – is to reduce poverty and also to improve the situation of women, which, in many instances, suffer an even more dire fate as their male counterparts. Not to talk about the incentive structure of the funding of international development which clearly favors quick wins with specific target groups.

I did some more thinking on the topic and I guess the important differentiation we need to make is between what we look at during the system analysis and what we define as target state of the system. In the first, i.e., the system analysis, we have to be open and holistic and take into account all kinds of influences. The only thing we need to do is to set the appropriate system boundaries to frame the system and the level of aggregation that is useful for our work. But only once we have analyzed the system, we should hone in on our target variables, e.g., the poverty or the economic empowerment of women and see how we can influence the system so these variables change in a way that seems favorable to us.

Hence, holism and targeted interventions don’t have to be a trade-off per se. The trade-off, in my view, starts when we are designing the interventions. At that point we have to choose between interventions that have a short-term effect on our target variables or we have to appreciate the dynamics of the system and choose interventions that work with the system. The latter often have the price tag of only showing results after longer periods of time – although that is not necessarily always the case.

I’m curious about your thoughts on this topic and whether it makes sense what I am writing here.