Systems and complexityTaking responsibility for complexity

Taking responsibility for complexity (section 4.2): Implications for aid agencies

This article is part of section 4 and also the final part 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.

What does this say about the set-up of international development agencies? Looking at the insights presented in this paper, the following speculations seem relevant:

  • In terms of ‘where,’ there appears to be increased recognition of the importance of decentralised structures (e.g. greater power given to country offices), of working in ways to improve local ownership (PRSPs1) and of promoting governance through large, decentralised basket funds. There has also been considerable focus on networks over the past decade. However, there are difficulties in allowing room for staff to manage in a collaborative and incremental manner.
  • The great emphasis being placed on the need to evaluate impact shows that the complexity of change is to a certain extent being recognised. However, initiatives are still based largely around the (unrealistic) ideal of the policy cycle, meaning ownership is often lacking and many managerial and operational structures are poorly set up to deal with admitting uncertainty – and also seem to be getting worse.
  • The importance of a variety of sources of knowledge has long been recognised. However, participation seems in danger of slipping off the radar of some high-level decision-makers within agencies, compared with the need to ‘prove’ impact. There seems to be a lack of systems to draw on to share participatory knowledge within agencies2: initiatives to support practical lessons from implementation must be continued.

Overall, there needs to be greater recognition that development is a knowledge industry, including readjusting the skills base and organisational structures accordingly – for example flat organisational structures; a diversity of staff with a variety of formal and informal communication systems; and rewards for interaction and sharing are all important.

However, it could be argued that the insights from complexity run counter to the direction of movement, certainly within bilateral development agencies. Greater calls for measurement, impact and (simplistic views of) domestic accountability are massively at odds with what is required in order to perform effectively in the face of complex problems. Development seems to be in danger of heightened schizophrenia, as reflections on the complex nature of the work and habits required to operate effectively in these situations are driven further underground, only to emerge in the form of a big ‘push back’ against reforms that are supposed to be improving development work3. As Natsios4 argues, these political trends may simply mean less ability to deal with complex problems or to produce long-lasting transformational changes. If we take this pessimistically, it could be that the best hope for development lies in less bureaucratic organisations.

This article is the final part of this series.

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. (https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/6485.pdf). Republished under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 in accordance with the Terms and conditions of the ODI website.

References and notes:

  1. Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.
  2. Beardon, H. and Newman, K. (2009). ‘How Wide Are the Ripples? The Management and Use of Information Generated from Participatory Processes in International Non-governmental Development Organizations.’ Working Paper 7. Bonn: IKM Emergent.
  3. Eyben, R. (2010). ‘Hiding Relations: The Irony of “Effective Aid.”’ European Journal of Development Research 22(3): 382-397.
  4. Natsios, A. (2010). The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development. Washington, DC: CGD.

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."

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