What do you do when faced with a problem so vast so complex and so confusing that you can’t really work out what’s going on and have little idea what to do or where to start? The short easy answer is – you don’t work on it; the longer, harder answer is you work on the conditions that create the problem.

A two day training in a practical approach to systems change

It’s 16 years to the day after the attacks on the twin towers and I’m sat in a chilly Nairobi café eating a limp croissant with Gaëlle Le Pottier and trying to work out what it really takes to provide leadership in the face of one of today’s pre-eminent complex problems – violent extremism.

In this blog we look at complexity – not in theory, not in books, but in messy, live, reality. Hamish Wilson interviewed Jarso Guyo Mokku, a pastoralist leader from Northern Kenya, about his perspectives on the changing dynamics of peace and conflict in the region and the increasing complexity he finds himself living in

As we try and learn how to make change happen in complex systems we are seeking out the stories, experiences and advice of other pioneers (and there are lots of them).

After a decade of hard work, the foundations are in place for substantive progress within African food systems. New tangible partnerships are emerging that combine focussed intent, long-term commitment and significant ambition. For anyone asking when African agriculture will deliver its long-touted potential, these partnerships offer the best hope for change at scale.

Through 2017 and 2018, Wasafiri will be extending our work from Africa and into the UK and the USA – here’s why:

When we set up Wasafiri, over 5 years ago now, it was because we saw a problem that we wanted to change. Between us we had been working on a variety of development issues across Africa; from climate change to conflict to agriculture – and the problem we recognised across all these different issues was less to do with the issues and more to do with the approach; and it was this approach that we wished to change.

Universal to all these very different problems was that these were not merely ‘technical’ problems – where solutions could be engineered- but rather systemic problems, that were deeply human in their nature. The sort of problems that no one institution, however brilliant or rich, could change on their own. So Wasafiri was set up to offer a different way to approach these sorts of problems. An approach rooted in collaborative action, in multi-stakeholder engagement, in bringing together those committed to making change and together figuring out, imperfect but practical action.

Over the last 5 years we have worked with partners from DFID to USAID, from private investors to global foundations, and we have been part of some significant change; and have learnt a great deal. We have been part of Grow Africa’s ability to engage governments and the private sector in catalysing over $2 billion of investment into agriculture on the continent. We have supported countries who have wanted to access Green Climate Fund investment with developing their plans. We have worked to help those effected by violent extremism in the Horn of Africa and those funding efforts to counter violent extremism to figure out how to support community resilience. And through this work, some of which has been more effective than others, we have learnt a great deal about what it means to work in complex systems and navigate complex problems.

However, complex systems and problems are not just found in Africa, or even just in developing countries. Rather these are universal problems many of which, like climate change, transcend national boundaries. From police –community relationships in the USA, to anti-microbial  resistance, to the muddle of the NHS in the UK, or the challenges of rising inequality across all wealthy countries – we live in a world of complex problems. Indeed the launch of the Sustainable Development Goals, and their explicit application to all countries underlined the universal and ongoing nature of development.

And so over the next year we at Wasafiri want to explore how we can bring the approach we have developed, and the lessons we have learnt about working in complex systems to issues outside of Africa. Initially we will be exploring opportunities in the UK and the USA – opportunities where there are not simple solutions, where many different actors need to collaborate – and where that is not easy to do. It is in these messy spaces where we have to come together and create the path by walking it.

There is no doubt that complex problems disproportionately affect the less powerful: hunger, drought, floods, and conflict all punish the poor and marginalised first. It is understandable that the less powerful feel angry at the more powerful. They may despair or rage against the injustice. “Why me?”

The powerful may be the winners in the system – wealth, health and power accrues to them/us. They/we may have power over the less powerful, and thereby be in a position to protect the status quo. This does not necessarily mean that the powerful have much effective power over the system itself. Indeed they/we are as much a product of the system as anyone else.

As Duncan Green describes in his excellent new book How Change Happens, much effort from principled activists goes in to “speaking truth to power.” This energy can feel like shouting in to the wind, because it is like shouting in to the wind. The system’s dynamics are more powerful than any individual leader. Like the monsters of old, you could chop off its head but the system will grow another back. We attribute too much power to leaders, and they/we are often obliged to perpetuate this myth to secure their/our position. Let’s see how effective Trump is at fulfilling all his promises to “Make America Great Again.”

System change requires a different kind of power – a collective power that Wasafiri terms “adaptive capacity”. This is the ability of actors in a system to know and act upon that system, so as to intentionally change it. Like other aspects of systems, the whole is not simply the sum of the parts. Collective power is not the aggregation of the power of individuals. It is a product of the social structures, behaviours and attitudes that allow collaboration and communication at a system level. The toughest “complex” problems are those where adaptive capacity is inadequate to the scale of the challenge – climate change, violent extremism, food security. A classic power analysis will not miraculously identify the individuals who can wield enough influence to solve these issues.

This does not diminish the responsibility of leaders. They/we often hold a privileged point of view from which to perceive the system more completely. They/we certainly have convening and decision-making power that can be the basis for greater adaptive capacity and effective interventions that drive system reform. But they/we are as much part of the system as anyone else, and can feel powerless to effect change.

A family is often described as the Complex Adaptive System that is easiest to relate to. As the Dad and primary breadwinner, a pure power analysis would suggest I have most individual power in my family. Do I feel powerful as one child has a tantrum, the other refuses to do his homework, and my wife fumes? Not very.

I recently described Wasafiri’s work on system change to an old friend, expecting the usual slightly blank look followed by, “So what exactly do you do?”. Instead she replied, “Oh that sounds just like my work as a family counsellor”. She helps whole families understand how they affect each other, and then collectively they make changes to the routines, norms and behaviours that define them. She helps increase the adaptive capacity of that family to evolve itself as a micro-system. That’s the help I need as a Dad. I’m not powerful to effect change on my own. I need my whole family to be working together.

Duncan Green would describe this approach to system change as “strategic activism”, in contrast to “principled activism”. Wasafiri uses the term “Systemcraft” to evoke the long-term effort of simultaneously strengthening adaptive capacity within system, whilst also coordinating interventions to address complex problems.

Ubuntu: why adaptive capacity has profound value?

A few years ago, the Wasafiri team attempted to articulate our values. Our North Star was a sense of purpose that we struggled to articulate. It was broader than poverty-alleviation, less benevolent than compassion, less “us vs them” than solidarity. It was a sense that the problems we worked on required people to work together in new ways that transcended boundaries; that their success was interconnected, even if they did not recognise it at first.

The African concept of Ubuntu was introduced and immediately resonated. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in his book No Future Without Forgiveness, says: “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language… It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.” Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee defined it as: “I am what I am because of who we all are.”

This philosophy gives a value-base to why work on adaptive capacity is important. It emphasises the collective over the individual, or at least that the individual cannot understand or fulfil their humanity outside their relation to the collective. Our work is to evolve human systems in which we can all thrive. It is to increase human agency over structural constraints. This we can only do together, wielding collective power, not looking to mythically powerful leaders to resolve our problems as if they sat God-like above the systems.

Whether it is my family striving for a little more harmony, a village countering the rise of extremist ideologies, or the global community facing global warming; we must consider how to increase our adaptive capacity. That’s when power is no longer a zero-sum game, we are collectively fulfilling our humanity, and we might just counter some thorny problems along the way.

I live in Brighton, a wealthy, vibrant, liberal city; and yet I have dear friends who sometimes end the month without enough money to buy food. They have no assets to draw upon and, despite earning salaries around the national average, there seems little hope of this changing. Meanwhile, each year, I manage to get a little richer. I cannot easily explain or justify the scale of this divergence. We all work hard and purposefully. In the Monopoly game of life, in my 20s I was lucky enough to start accumulating capital whilst they never have. This arbitrary and seemingly inevitable inequality seems profoundly unfair and damaging.

In trying to understand why this disparity seems inevitable, I have concluded that rising inequality will emerge as a defining complex challenge of the 21st Century. Unless the global community acts intentionally to temper this long-term economic trend, then highly destructive social forces will emerge to do so. Wasafiri’s growing understanding of how to manage complex change offers important insights on how to turn the tide on extreme inequality.

Inequality is bad and rising

In developed economies, as much as poverty, it is strong inequality that drives social ills. In “The Spirit Level” Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson  present strong evidence that more unequal societies have worse health, crime and social cohesion. The stress and behaviours caused by people trying to keep up economically are bad for rich and poor alike. Less equal societies are also expensive for the public purse, as the state struggles to prop people up when housing and nutritious food are less affordable; crime is higher; and communities care for each other less. More equal societies, such as Denmark, are those in which citizens are happiest. Even environmental performance is worse in less equal countries, as consumption habits are driven by materialistic pressures to keep up; and people are less willing to support concessions in favour of long-term public goods.

Meanwhile, decade on decade, inequality is rising across the developed world. In his seminal text, “Capital in the 21st Century”, Thomas Picketty shows this empirically, and demonstrates that the simple mathematics of economic growth is inexorably shifting global wealth into the ownership of fewer and fewer people. In the USA, which is the most unequal developed economy, the top 10% earn close to half of total income. This compares to a third in the 1950s. Wealth inequality is even more eye-watering, with the bottom 50% owning almost no capital and the top 10% owning 75%. Whilst the USA is the most unequal major economy, all developed countries from Sweden to Australia are showing the same steady rise in inequality.

Most fundamentally, inequality is rising because the average rate of return from capital, which remains historically steady at about 5%, is greater than the rate of GDP growth achievable by developed economies over the long-term. Whilst incomes from labour are not keeping up with incomes from capital, those people who have capital will steadily accumulate more and more. This is exacerbated further by the very rich achieving higher rates of return than the merely wealthy; and inheritance ensures this wealth stays within the same families. Without significant compensatory measures in place, we have an economic system that is hard-wired to make an increasingly small elite richer, relative to the rest of the population.pay

This trend is also significant for developing economies. During their demographic and economic transition, the growth rates for population and GDP provide a countervailing trend so that inequality is more likely to reduce or remain steady; and reduction of extreme poverty will offer more significant social progress than a focus on reducing inequality. Nonetheless, the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included a goal to reduce inequality, citing evidence that income inequality increased by 11% in developing countries between 1990 and 2010 and that, beyond a certain threshold, inequality harms growth and poverty reduction, the quality of relations in the public and political spheres, and individuals’ sense of fulfilment and self-worth. All the development rhetoric, effort and investments regarding inclusive growth will only secure temporary gains, if, as economies mature, the inevitable historic outcome is extreme inequality.

If extreme inequality is both bad and inexorably rising, then we have a problem. One does not need to believe in the need for equality, to recognise that at some point extreme inequality becomes unjust and damaging.

In the USA and Western Europe, inequality last peaked in the early 20th Century, at which point it took the disruptive impact of two World Wars and the Great Depression to diminish the extreme capital accumulation and drive socially progressive reforms such as the welfare state, access to education, and labour rights. The rise of populist and divisive rhetoric from politicians like Donald Trump, Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage, has grim echoes from a century ago. Nonetheless their messages resonate with a mass of people who feel excluded from any economic recovery; hear of CEO bonuses and multinational tax bills with resentment; and feel threatened by the forces of globalisation. Arguably, a similar sense of exclusion is a contributing factor to the rise of violent extremism

Inequality is complex

Rising inequality presents a complex challenge on a scale matched only by climate change. It is an outcome of a highly-entrenched and interconnected set of dynamics within our economic system. The problems it creates are emergent and unpredictable. The whole system is the product of the daily norms and actions that underpin the economic life of billions of people. Power lies disproportionately with those actors who benefit from inequality the most; and many of us hold a worldview that justifies inequality as the rightful outcome of aspiration, hard work and talent.

What do we know about delivering change in complex systems that might help?

  1. Set a target:

The climate change response has benefitted enormously from the target of limiting temperature rises to 2%. Similarly, partners have collaborated to transform African agriculture because of an AU target to achieve 6% growth in the sector. A target becomes a rallying call to interested parties. It simply defines a compelling common ambition without people and institutions having to agree on the best way to respond. It starts the debate and holds everyone to account.

If each G8 country set a high-profile target cap for inequality, it would positively drive public discourse and inspire policy reform. Imagine that a UK Government committed that the top 20% should not earn more than ten times more than the bottom 20%. No future government would ever dare raise the target cap, and more likely they would feel compelled to lower it. At some point, as extreme inequality rose toward the target, political pressure would mount for the government to lead policy reforms that would have systemic consequence.

Tantalisingly, the SDGs have set a globally agreed target that by 2030 each country should “progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average”. There are two problems with this target though. Firstly, it is a weak target because it only addresses the bottom end of rising inequality, so it could be achieved whilst the top 1% continue to accumulate ever greater wealth. Secondly, whilst unlike their predecessors the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs are meant to apply globally and they are largely being ignored by developed countries. Government committees in the UK, USA, Germany and elsewhere have considered their role in achieving the SDGs; but seem to assume the goals are irrelevant domestically, or will be easily achieved through existing policy measures. Nonetheless, the SDG target could offer a starting point around which to create a movement for change and hold governments to account.

  1. Create an inclusive movement:

Extreme inequality is ultimately bad for everyone. Higher crime, poorer health and less cohesive communities impact all –  and cost more to manage. Arguably, the 2008 economic crisis was precipitated by vast accumulated capital seeking returns from lending to people who did not have the incomes needed to pay for their debt. At some level of inequality, the political and economic elite cannot sustain their position without risking calamity. Tackling extreme inequality will also require leadership from them. The historical alternative is revolution. If Marie Antoinette had understood this, then perhaps she could have kept her head.

Hence building an inclusive movement is vital. Participation and leadership from across the political, economic and social spectrum will be needed. Fairness Commissions offer an interesting model that could be replicated at national level. These cross-sector leadership bodies have been formed by progressive councils in the UK and USA to identify the drivers of inequality in their areas and identify interventions that can address the worst problems. They include leaders from across the private sector, public sector, voluntary bodies and religious groups. Together they bring enough different perspectives to understand their city’s economic and social dynamics, propose solutions and provide a mandate for action.

  1. Experiment:

From across the ideological spectrum, people champion very varied interventions to tackle rising inequality, for example investing in education to drive social mobility; a citizens’ income; land value tax; capping the ratio between top and bottom salaries within companies; and a global wealth tax. Sweden has comparatively low inequality because of higher taxation, whereas Japan has comparatively low inequality because of cultural norms on pay scales.

Work on complex change tells us that silver bullets are rare, and we must experiment and iterate to discover the interventions that work in any given time and place. Compelled by national targets to act, supported by a growing and inclusive movement advocating change, countries will need to learn what works and take interventions to scale at a pace that allows economic and social norms to adjust incrementally. The alternative is traumatic shocks such as economic depression, or even war, as inherent tensions build to the point where the economic system violently leaps from one state to a new more balanced one.

  1. Seize the moment:

The existing status quo in any system will resist change. However, there is always flux and every so often a window of opportunity opens up, during which change becomes more possible. British Eurosceptics have been shouting in the wind for decades, but the combination of Cameron’s promise of a referendum, the immigration crisis, and an empty economic recovery, all aligned for the nation to choose Brexit. Similarly, political windows of opportunity will fleetingly emerge, in which historic progress can be made to reverse the tide on rising inequality. If targets exist, if an inclusive movement has formed, and experimentation is underway, then we will be ready to seize those moments when they come.

 

Have hope. Be ready. My friends need not always worry about affording food in the days before pay day.

Ian Randall

September, 2016

https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/resources/the-spirit-level