Systems & complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 3.1.8): Incremental intervention

This article is part of section 3.1 of a series of articles featuring the ODI Working Paper Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems.

Inevitably, there will still be some work that a central agency must carry out, and/or action that needs to be taken unilaterally. Meanwhile, even if, as a whole, action to address a problem must be emergent, this does not mean that nothing can be done to help this. As an analogy, free trading markets are emergent, and yet there can still be a role for public policy to ensure the conditions for emergence are maintained intact1. While many goals can be met through self-organised action, some goods may still need to be provided by the ‘top’ level: larger/higher governance units may be needed to reduce the strategic behaviour of agents avoiding rules, by providing neutral spaces for mediation and goods that can be contracted out, as well as supporting actors to self-organise, as mentioned above2.

A different approach to intervention will be required. Genuine collaborative institutions and networks are not so easy to bring into existence or control. Lessons from working with networks show these live on or perish according to their own internal dynamics, because the potential for learning comes largely from the informal side, rather than being controlled by management or formal structures. Rather than looking to create a new network on an issue, the first step should be to recognise and engage with existing networks of interactions (whether formal or informal) and to facilitate them, work with them or manage in relation to them. This should be part of some general requirements placed on interventions, to ensure they ‘do no harm’ to emergent collaboration and action3.

Capacity building should not be carried out as part of a ‘deficit-based’ or blueprint-based approach. Rather, it should be approached in an ‘incremental’ manner, combining a degree of formal strategic intent with a flexible design; taking an evolutionary approach to supporting programmes; working harder to ensure ownership is retained by responding to organisations’ motivations, identities and needs; and being creative about options for support, embedded in the political, social and cultural norms within which they operate4.

It may be, therefore, that funding action on the issue must be seen as ‘seeding’ emergent action. Rather than investing solely in ‘sure fire success,’ complex situations require a broad range of strategies, including making investments that may not bear fruit for a significant amount of time, and where the final outcome is quite uncertain. Rather than conceiving of policy and delivery as mechanistic, a better approach might come from using the metaphor of gardening and tending to a meadow5: there is no grand design, but there are plenty of opportunities for a variety of actors to influence what flourishes, especially with seasonal patterns; action is about tending to different species with deep or shallow roots, seeking or giving shade and encouraging beneficial species such as bees and earthworms, etc. Governments should provide economic incentives (and others) for social aims, and mechanisms need to be developed for decentralised funds to support capacity and action at the local level. SNV’s Local Capacity Development Fund represents pioneering work in this field, allowing demand-oriented support in a way that empowers local organisations and gives them services tailored to their needs6.

Box 7: Stimulating decentralised action on irrigation in Sri Lanka

In the Gal Oya irrigation scheme in Sri Lanka, cooperative practices and structures emerged that greatly improved the size and efficiency of irrigated rice production. In 1981, funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), young institutional organisers were recruited to act as catalysts for farmer organisation. Living alongside farm households, they began their efforts at field channel level, where 10-20 farmers would be cultivating from a common source of water, beginning groups at a pace the farmers were willing to accept, functioning informally and in an ad hoc manner at first until members wanted a more formal structure.

Over time, more complex formal and informal organisational structures grew. In 1985, when the programme ended, about 12,500 farmers were cooperating through these organisations, for improved water management but also in solving other issues, such as crop protection and employment creation. The Gal Oya had previously seen 30 years of water stealing and conflicts between farmers. Such was the success and sustainability of these structures that, in 1997, over a decade after the end of the official programme, and against expert predictions that there was not enough water, farmers achieved a better-than-average crop.

Uphoff describes two forms of social capital that were fundamental to this success. Structural forms such as roles, rules, procedures and precedents, as well as social networks, establish ongoing patterns of interaction. These supported decision-making; resource mobilisation and management; communication; and conflict resolution. These were often cemented in formal roles, and supplemented with sets of rules, developed by the farmers themselves7, that saw instances of non-cooperation and selfish behaviour replaced by norms of cooperation and amicable resolution of conflicts of interest.

Cognitive forms of social capital, such as norms, values, attitudes and beliefs, are more internal and subjective, but represent shared symbols and meaning and embed trust and reciprocation. Promoting action was often a matter of encouraging those values and social institutions that would facilitate cooperation. For example, shramadana, which means ‘donation of labour,’ is a set of norms, beliefs, procedures and precedents recognised by Hindus and Buddhists in South Asia. While this was not being drawn on in 1980, the practice was mobilised in order to get farmers to rehabilitate irrigation channels, gates, roads and bridges.

Uphoff describes the effect of this social capital as mutually beneficial collective action. This should be seen as an emergent property, as it is stable (as seen by the continued development of the irrigation management institutions), impossible to control (the USAID-funded staff worked as catalysts, according to the pace and wishes of the local farmers) and difficult to predict (when they began their work, nobody could have foreseen that such structures would be in place over 15 years later, at such a large scale). It produced results that were clearly more than the sum of its parts: from the same fixed water source, thanks to the institutional innovations, farmers were able to achieve substantial increases in the area irrigated, and in the productivity of the water and the land, as well as the exceptional ‘crop against all odds’ in 1997.

Source: Uphoff8; Uphoff and Wijayaratna9.

Next part (section 3.2): When? Building adaptive and emergent responses.

See also these related series:

Article source: Jones, H. (2011). Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems. Overseas Development Institute (ODI) Working Paper 330. London: ODI. ( Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Ruitenbeek, J. and Cartier, C. (2001). ‘The Invisible Wand: Adaptive Co-management as an Emergent Strategy in Complex Bio-economic Systems.’ Occasional Paper 34. Jakarta: CIFOR.
  2. Ostrom, E. (2010). ‘A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change.’ Policy Research Working Paper 5095. Washington, DC: World Bank.
  3. Ruitenbeek, J. and Cartier, C. (2001). ‘The Invisible Wand: Adaptive Co-management as an Emergent Strategy in Complex Bio-economic Systems.’ Occasional Paper 34. Jakarta: CIFOR.
  4. Land, T., Hauck, V. and Baser, H. (2009). ‘Capacity Development: Between Planned Interventions and Emergent Processes: Implications for Development Cooperation.’ Maastricht: ECDPM.
  5. Curtis, D. (nd). ‘Mono-crops, Meadows, Gardens and Wild Margins: On Thinking through the Public Management Landscape.’ Unpublished paper.
  6. Tembo, F. (2008). ‘Study on Capacity Development Support Initiatives and Patterns: LCDF Research and Development Phase.’ Report for SNV. London: ODI.
  7. Rules are an element emphasised by Ostrom as critical for effective collective action. Ostrom, E. (1990). Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Uphoff, N. (1996). Learning from Gal Oya: Possibilities for Participatory Development and PostNewtonian Social Science. London: IT Publications.
  9. Uphoff, N. and Wijayaratna, C. (2000). ‘Demonstrated Benefits from Social Capital: The Productivity of Farmer Organisations in Gal Oya, Sri Lanka.’ World Development 28(11): 1875-1890.
Rate this post

Harry Jones

Author of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) paper "Taking responsibility for complexity: How implementation can achieve results in the face of complex problems."

Related Articles

Back to top button