Tag Archives: poverty reduction

Targeting vs. holism: reply to some comments

I want to pick some of the comments to my last post and reply to them. But instead of replying in the comment thread, I decided to write a new post.

First of all, I want to take up Shawn Cunningham’s point (who is actually the friend I was talking to who inspired the original post and he also writes a blog I like). He rightly points out the importance of the dampening feedback loops that often render our interventions toothless or return the system to its earlier stage after the project has phased out. I see this as one of the major shortcomings of current approaches in development that call themselves ‘systemic’. Just to take an example of such an approach I know fairly well: the ‘Making Markets Work for the Poor’ (M4P) approach, which is highly praised for being systemic. Although I think the approach is a valuable step towards a more systemic approach, I see many shortcomings from a systems thinking perspective. On the positive side, M4P promotes the notion of seeking change from within the system by introducing facilitation of system actors to change as the main intervention tool. Although the facilitation approach encourages practitioners to experiment with small interventions and learn from the system, the M4P approach does not include the analysis of feedback loops. Hence, many dynamics of the system, especially if they are outside the economic sphere, are not systematically assessed. They might be spotted if the implementation team is tuned to unintended effects of the interventions or effects of the system on the interventions, but that is probably the exception.

The second point I want to take up from the comments is Shawn’s point about the interest of donors and other interest groups. I think it is important to realize that the aid industry is a complex system in itself and interests are shaped by complex interactions within and between donor agencies, which usually are large bureaucratic organizations as well as by interactions between politics in and between donor countries and with ‘receiving’ countries. And there are not only the donors, there are also other interest groups that have a big influence on the aid system. So if Shawn talks about the interest of donors to have quick wins with their perceived beneficiary populations (‘the poor’, women, etc.), this is part of the dynamics of this particular system. What I mean to say is that we should not necessarily condemn the donors not to understand the need to use systemic approaches to effectively and sustainably improve the station of the poor (which is, however, probably also true to a large extend), but that they are trapped in the dynamics of their own systems.

This is a nice example, by the way, of the fractal nature of complex systems. You can always zoom further out and you will find another complex adaptive system of which the system you were looking at in the first place is only a part, i.e., the economy in which the poor participate – or also zoom further in for that matter, and you will look at the dynamics between and within poor households which are not less complex. Of course, they are in effect all part of the same system but we put some boundaries in order to delimit systems for our analysis.

The last point mentioned by Shawn about the change we want to see brings me to the topic of values that we have and the question of how far we can allow ourselves to impose our values on the system we are working with. I see this as a very delicate discussion and I am not very clear myself how to answer the question. I was discussing this question recently with another friend and he was pretty clear that we of course want for example to free women from oppression, from being stoned because their husband commits adultery, and of course we want to promote the universal declaration of human rights. But then again also in this case we have to find a way to make these changes happen from within the system and not impose these values on the system. To achieve social change is probably one of the most difficult things and the one where the systems are probably most averse to change.

An interesting aspect I want to take up from Alexis Morcrette’s comments is the problem of having multiple goals within economic development projects. He makes the following example:

(…) (1) you want the system to be more competitive as a whole (competitiveness of the system), (2) you want the participation of traditionally marginalised people in the system to be improved, in absolute numbers participating and in terms of the benefits they derive from the system (call this inclusion of the system), and finally (3) you want the participation of these traditionally marginalised people to be more self-determined/empowered (called this, for lack of a better word, equitability of the system).

Alexis identifies a need for trade-offs between these goals. This resonates with a point made by Shawn:

The third dimension is time, and it is dynamic. Here in South Africa, there is the fear that a particular group other than the intended beneficiaries would benefit in the short term, therefore paralysis ensues. Rather do nothing than tip the scale in favor of the wrong group. But this time dynamic also have a longer term dimension. Sometimes the change will happen, it will just take much longer. Or it may happen over time because some other conditions are met. Or maybe it almost happens, but because on (sic) or two factors are weak the system reverts to an earlier state. We have to remember that in most systems theories there is a recognition of the importance of the starting state of the system AND the timing of the change.

Put in other words: in the short term, there might be a need for a trade-off to be made between the three goals if we want to see changes in all three of them – they might even be mutually exclusive because – as Shawn puts it – in order to achieve one goal the scale in the other aspect needs to be tipped in favor of the ‘wrong group’, for example bigger businesses. But if we take a longer term perspective, all of these goals might be reached to a satisfactory extend. The question is: do we have a long enough breath and the courage to take the necessary steps?

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.