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

Here in the UK we are living in complex times. Last month we voted to leave the EU; it turns out if being in the EU was complicated, leaving is the definition of complexity.

In the hours following the vote there was profound shock, particularly amongst those of us that voted remain. Certainly I had never imagined this result, though neither perhaps had many that voted leave. The post-mortems are mounting and if no one saw it happening, everyone can now explain why it did. Duncan Green, on his ‘Poverty to Power’ Oxfam blog, offers a great summary of contributing factors and avoids any sort of simplistic explanation. For my own reflections (once past the shock and anger), I try looking through the lens of ‘complex adaptive systems’. These are systems that, as Wasafiri, we seek out to work in, and of course unsurprisingly, find that we also live in. One of the clues to understanding such systems is to look for power; where it moves, where it pools, where it stagnates: “Identifying types of power and where they are located is an essential factor in understanding complex social systems” (1)

Well, in the EU referendum many of us saw power in all the normal places; with the business leaders, with the economists, with the analysts of political and economic impact, with our political leaders. Yet BREXIT was voted for in large numbers by those that live outside of London, by working class voters, by older voters, and above all by people who have, politically and economically, been marginalised for a long time; and it turns out however marginalised individually, collectively they held a power that few truly appreciated, at least for this vote.

And now, from the press to the school playground when I pick up my kids, our conversations are dominated by the what ifs, the maybes and the impossible to knows. What we can know is that we are part of a complex adaptive system; one that right now we are trying to change. Like all complex adaptive systems the issues are emerging and changing; they are too complex for any one person or institution to fully understand; and no one body can control, determine or even ‘lead’, let alone predict, exactly what will happen.

So what might BREXIT mean for the UK’s international aid programme? On paper, the value of our aid budget has just dropped by about $1.4 billion(2). This is due to the drop in the value of the pound and the corresponding drop in the value of our aid budget. But in the coming months, as the pound (hopefully) strengthens, or (terrifyingly) drops further, this number will prove to be what it is – a projection. More significantly, though still off somewhere in a post UK Europe, is that the UK contributes about 2 billion Euros to the EU aid budget – though whether this money ‘disappears’ from international aid, or appears in a different form is, as yet, unknowable. Beyond the money there is also the issue of influence. We already see, in many of the countries in Africa where we work, that the UK government has no monopoly on political influence; we compete for space with other national governments, with the boom in Chinese trade and with regional agendas and bodies. As we leave the EU and cease to be part of that substantial infrastructure of delegations, funding and political access, we may have more freedom to ‘sing our own tune’ but we will be singing it on our own, and not as part of a choir of 27 states.

However, as much as many of us didn’t want or vote for BREXIT, and however much we believe it is wrong for our country, we now have it. We will leave the EU. And we need to work out how to do it well. Doing it well means that the process as well as the outcome matter; and that they are actually one and the same. It means working with the emergent nature of the issues; it means engaging across all the stakeholders – those in our country and beyond –  however contradictory their views, needs and experiences; it means not pretending that any one person or institution can control, predict or, however brilliant they are, ‘save’ the process. It means recognising that we are living in a complex adaptive system and we had better not underestimate the consequences.

References

(1)

http://www.thebrokeronline.eu/Articles/Connecting-the-dots

(2)

p://www.humanosphere.org/opinion/2016/06/brexit-causes-value-of-u-k-foreign-aid-to-drop-by-1-4-billion/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-36618843

 

If there is one thing I’ve learned recently, it’s that violent extremism is a complex problem. Here in the Horn of Africa, a vast number of potential causal factors exist to incite someone to violence and the connections between them are often hard to see.

And yet, despite the complexities, we (the international community) often fall into the trap of trying to design responses to such threats using tools and approaches built for simpler, more conventional problems. This is fraught with risk.

On our quest to learn more about how complexity theories can be applied to real-world problems such as violent extremism, we’ve been grappling with the question of how to construct more adaptive tools (such as theories of change and results frameworks) for CVE.

In doing so, we’ve drawn heavily from thinkers such as Ben Ramalingman, Duncan Green and Marcus Jenal who have broken new ground in the field. Below we offer a compilation of (mostly their) thoughts to stimulate more discussion. Let us know what you think – we would love to hear your thoughts!

A number of problems with conventional approaches to creating theories of change and results frameworks

  • They assume that causal pathways are known in advance of implementation. The assumption that there is sufficient knowledge about the chain of results can be highly dangerous when applied to the uncertainties of violent extremism (VE).
  • They over-simplify messy realities that then become entrenched in implementation. Defining the causal pathway at the outset ignores the dynamic interactions among various parts of the VE problem.
  • They assume the problem can be treated in reductionist ways. Conventional approaches risk assuming that the problem can be separated into its component parts and that solutions can be applied in a replicable and reproducible fashion.
  • They typically engage with contextual factors in delivery only, rather than in design. They can often assume certainty about the design of an intervention from the outset, which is nigh on impossible in relation to the nature of VE.
  • They reduce the willingness to adapt the design over time. They create strong incentives to stick to and report on what was agreed from the outset.
  • They impose limitations on capturing unexpected outcomes. Further to the point above, these can impede the ability of CVE programmes to explicitly look for wider outcomes and results.

Some thoughts on creating an ‘adaptive Theory of Change’[i]

  • A Theory of Change (ToC) is only useful if it actually informs decision-making. Sounds self-evident, however many Theories of Change gather dust once they have been created to sell the concept of a project.
  • A ToC can never be perfect or fixed, at least for CVE programmes. A ToC should be an idea that is alive and dynamic. A ToC has, in the first place, to be useful for the people who work with it. It is a tool to discuss, debate, experiment, learn, change.
  • We may never figure out how change will happen in complex systems. Not only can we not know the pathways, we are also unable to predict the exact shape of how the change will look. In some cases we might even not know what a good outcome would look like before we see it. Complex systems can only be understood if we interact with them.
  • We may need to start with, and test, multiple Theories of Change. For complex problems such as VE, there may be multiple competing hypotheses of how the intended change could be achieved, or what it could look like. The available evidence may support different and even competing perspectives.
  • A well-designed ToC cannot change complexity. The complexity of VE cannot be simplified or reduced with a nice, neat, logical model or theory. Recognise the dangers that any ToC is a potentially dangerous simplificiation of the real world.
  • In a complex system, different people will have different perspectives about how things work, which may not be amenable to analysis with a single, simple model. On the contrary, it is important to understand where there is agreement on causalities among the stakeholders and where there is not – this gives us important insights on the complexity of specific links in the logical chain.
  • The ToC needs to be presented as an overarching framework that explains how the programme intends to work, but without detailing the specific mechanisms of change (i.e. interventions). This will help ensure the theory of change remains valid even if individual interventions are adapted, closed down, or scaled up.
  • Mini Theories of Change may be required to allow adaptation and testing. In conditions of significant uncertainty, an adaptive, learn-as-you-go approach is essential. It makes sense for programmes to include a range of exploratory interventions that can be scaled up, or brought to an end. These projects may run independently of each other, and each should be thought through with its own mini ToC.
  • Design it to evolve over time based on new evidence. Recognise that any Theory of Change is just that – a theory. Given the (a) lack of data and (b) debate over what data there is in the world of CVE, we should expect current theories to evolve, and quickly. We must apply this thinking to the ToC from the outset.
  • Its possible that the most important goal may be about how responsive the programme is to the local system. Given the outcomes of intervening in a complex system may be unknowable, it is worth considering that the actual goal of the intervention itself may be the extent to which it is responsive to the problem (rather than defining the impact it will have).

Adapted from Essays on complexity and Theories of Change. Marcus Jenal. 2016 https://marcusjenal.wordpress.com/

Also see Navigating Wicked Problems in Development

 

 

 

Scott Hinkle recently joined Wasafiri as our Team Leader for the Regional Countering Violent Extremism Research Unit (RRU).  He started his work with Wasafiri with a quick trip to Washington to attend the CVE Symposium (April 6-7, 2016) and did a great summary write-up for the rest of us left at home. We thought it would be worth sharing more generally, so here it is:

On April 6-7, 2016 I attended a two-day CVE Symposium hosted by the International Peace and Security Institute (IPSI) and Creative Associates in Washington DC. There were around 200-225 CVE analysts, practitioners, and leaders in attendance. It was a very impressive, well-organised and participatory conference with multiple break-out and small group sessions. Here are some of the key themes that resonated for me:

  • Conflict prevention is key. Some of the key speakers were Special Operations Commander of SOCOM, US Senator and Cory Booker, the Secretary General for the US Department of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson and an introduction presented by UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon. All emphasised the need to increase violence prevention measures and capacities of vulnerable communities to address VE.
  • CVE is largely undefined, misunderstood and underfunded.Resources are the fundamental expression of priorities.” Conflict prevention has been advocated in the VE arena for some time, but only recently has it gained funding traction in the US. Still, compared to Counter Terrorism, CVE is a tiny drop in the bucket of the billions spent per year on the military and intelligence sectors. CVE also suffers from the growing pains of a burgeoning and newly funded field. Lastly, there was little discussion on overarching definitions of VE, or even CVE. Recognition was given to the difficulties in defining both, but that all programmes should operate around what VE/CVE mean at the micro-level.
  • Working in and on the local context was the most prominent point of the conference. Trust is the strategic and operational capital for CVE programmes.” Understanding the micro, or community-level, environments is the only way CVE is effective. Literally every speaker and discussion mentioned that the local perception of the push factors and, importantly, the “how” of the pull factors, is unique to every area and vulnerable population. Thus, CVE programmes must be community-led, targeted and intentional.
  • Well-thought-out framing of CVE programmes is key to local and international acceptance. Never use CVE to frame a programme.” “All CVE efforts should be integrated into other community-led programmes.” I completely agree with the first quote, as labelling a programme CVE increases the risk to the community and CVE practitioners. Framing a programme as CVE also has many unintended negative connotations linked to militarisation, oppression and even neo-colonialism that limit community, government, NGO and international cooperation. It is important to bring in broader development and humanitarian coalitions and a CVE label will instantly isolate the programme.
  • CVE programmes must be agile. The flexibility and adaptability of CVE programmes was consistently and boldly emphasised. In VE and fragile contexts, change is the norm. CVE programmes will always be operating with a deficit of information. Thus, programmes must have systems for local contextual analysis and organisational learning that consistently integrate new understanding and contextual changes. 
  • Difficulty of M&E in CVE. Obtaining specific metrics for local-level context and conflict prevention is essential for success and future funding of CVE. However, everyone recognised that utilising tangible and quantifiable indicators expressing “prevention” was often (but not always) difficult to achieve. Avenues to explore, and that donors seemed amenable to, were “plausible correlations” of precursors to violence and the USAID Learning Lab indicator free M&E approaches, such as outcome harvesting and most significant change.

https://usaidlearninglab.org/sites/default/files/resource/files/Complexity%20Aware%20Monitoring%202013-12-11%20FINAL.pdf 

  • Complex systems thinking is the logical approach for CVE but difficult to implement. The intent is to learn and improve activities by learning with the community. The overall question should be, “how does change take place in that community/system?” Once that is understood, then CVE programmes would be effective at integrating into, and thus influencing, the system of change. Below are some bulleted thoughts on this subject:
    • Investigate geographic-focused pull factor systems.
    • Use real-time operational research to identify gaps between project designs and outcomes and inform a learning-by-doing approach.
    • Focus on listening and learning over solutions to problems. The goal of CVE projects should not be to meet predetermined benchmarks, but to learn which elements of one’s initial understanding of the system were right and which were wrong.
    • Use systems thinking and visualisation to demonstrate the multiple and parallel entry/focal points for interventions in a targeted community.
    • Use a continually evolving portfolio of interventions.
    • Answer the questions: 1) How do we gather data to represent the complex environment?; 2) How do we programme better in a complex environment?; 3) How are we going to get quick wins using complex theory?
    • Use mixed methodologies/theories besides and with complex systems.
  • Linear or “problem then solution” Theories of Change (ToCs) are difficult to utilise in the complex and ever-changing VE environments. Thus, the following concepts enhance the effectiveness of ToCs in the CVE arena.
    • The ToC needs to be presented as an overarching framework that explains how the programme intends to work, but without detailing the specific mechanisms of change (i.e. interventions).
    • The first version of ToC should still be fairly general since we cannot yet know much about the intricacies of how change happens. It essentially is the representation of our knowledge and hypotheses we start off with.
    • There should be a ToC that is specifically centered on the flexibility, adaptability and learning of CVE programmes.
  • Use technology to capture local and national context, sentiment and narratives. What’s in people’s minds becomes actions.” The importance of social media analysis as a component to any CVE programme cannot be understated. The tech analysts expressed over and over that there are so many inexpensive and open-source (free) software programmes that are under-utilised. E.g.
    • Agolo: Summarises large amounts of text in seconds, plug in news sources and subjects and it creates daily/weekly news letters, performs social media analysis. http://www.agolo.com This is one that I have already started the process for.
    • Symantica Pro: network and link analysis, quite complicated.
    • Recorded Future: Sentiment and social media analysis.
    • Open Situation Room Exchange: hashtags that are driving in social media.
    • ICCM Project: collects multiple sources and identifies overlaps.

If you were there then please feel free to share any thoughts, comments and reflections below. These notes are just Scott’s initial reflections and we will share more of our thinking and current work over the coming weeks. As ever, feel free to get in touch if there is anything you’d like to discuss further with us

This week we have a guest blogger – Griff Griffiths, who shares some thoughts on wicked problems and complexity thinking, taken from beyond the world of international development.

Griff runs Cocomotion, works in the complex area of People and Organizational Development and describes himself as a ‘surprisingly useful person.’ He has been working, thinking and experimenting with the application of complexity thinking for longer than Wasafiri has existed; and has found himself in the midst of everything from large scale IT projects, to working with young people in Gaza, alongside a whole host of corporate world adventures.

I met Griff during a partially successful experiment to get a whole group of people to imitate a flock of birds – and he filled my head with all sorts of ideas about complexity from a world outside of international development. So, I thought we would invite him along to add some new ideas, perspectives and background to some of thinking we have been exploring at Wasafiri over the last few months.

How do we get to grips with wicked issues?

Our most intractable problems are hard to fix because they contain many more factors than we can hope to count, understand or control; because the factors are interdependent in ways we cannot always discern; and because small changes sometimes have big effects, and vice versa.  And when we do fix these problems, they don’t stay fixed. These are the so-called wicked problems and we have many of them, at all scales of human interaction – societies, communities, organisations and groups; between individuals and within individuals.

We could be better at solving them, but we’ve been focussed on other problems for quite a long time, like going to the moon or flying to Europe for twenty five pounds, which are very complicated, but for which we’ve developed sophisticated and successful techniques of planning and control. Now our wicked issues are beginning to bite hard.

So what can we do? Here are some ideas:

Change the way we think about the world

In their wonderful 2015 overview of wickedness Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence, Boulton, Allen and Bowman make the case for complexity as a worldview. They point out that the mindset that this involves  – seeing the world as interwoven process rather than interacting objects, or, as a friend of mine said recently, thinking of people as verbs, not nouns – is one which was common in the distant past, but has long fallen out of favour.

When we intervene in such a world,  we’re confronted not only with risk, but with uncertainty – it’s not merely a question of whether our interventions will work or not, it’s that they may result in the appearance of entirely new phenomena that we can’t predict in advance. Boulton et al give the example of SMS, which was a tiny feature in the then-new digital mobile networks designed to notify users of voicemail; what it became was the conduit for an entirely unexpected global phenomenon of short interpersonal messaging, which itself reshaped the way people communicate.

Use metaphor – with care

In her 1993 paper Chaos and Complexity, What Can Science Teach? Margaret Wheatley also refers to the need for a shift in consciousness and draws rich metaphors from complexity science to illustrate how our thinking about organisations can shift from organisation-as-machine to organisation-as-complex-entity. She challenges assumptions that we commonly make about human organisations based on ideas taken from, for example, mechanics (‘change happens as the result of external influences’) and physics (‘things fall apart’ – entropy). She offers alternatives, drawn from complexity science, which describe what we see in organisations in a more useful way, and suggest different ways of working.

But although models from complexity science can help us in this way with metaphor, they can’t just be transplanted in order to explain the complexity we find in human affairs. For example, chaos can mean many things: it’s been used as a beautiful metaphor for the behaviour of flourishing teams, as an obvious metaphor for anarchy, and Wheatley talks about it as breeding self-organisation and creativity. What are we to make of that?

Search for explanations

Metaphor lets us borrow language from complexity science to describe what we see; explanation gives us insight to understand and influence. We need explanatory theories of  complex human interaction to give us a basis upon which to work with wicked problems.

Glenda Eoyang (Human Systems Dynamics) and Ralph Stacey (Complex Responsive Processes) are two thinkers whose work explores the underlying dynamics of human interaction to develop theories which explain those dynamics, and show why human interaction self-organises into observable patterns. Eoyang’s work seeks to build on this to create further specific models which provide more detail for particular domains, such as community engagement or team effectiveness.

Interestingly, both Eoyang and Stacey’s theories apply at any scale of human interaction – within the individual person; in one to one interactions; within groups and in whole societies. This suggests that there might be scale free ways of working with complexity; approaches which we can use with any size of wicked problem.

Develop processes

There’s a three-minute video by Eric Berlow in another post on this blog, in which he talks about standing back, looking for patterns, choosing a sphere of influence and looking for a ‘simple detail that matters most’ as the place to intervene if we want to change things.

We are in a world of massively entangled connections. The ‘simple detail that matters most’ is quite likely a detail that also matters in some other web of connections, not just the one we are focussed on, and our actions to influence in one place may give rise to unintended consequences in another – either within our field of view or outside it.

So if we aren’t sure what the outcomes of our interventions will be, or even where or when they will occur, then we are more or less compelled to work in adaptive cycles rather than following a long term, fixed plan. What might the general features of an adaptive approach be?  Look for pattern. Find the detail that matters most. Act to influence it. See if the patterns change. Look for pattern… and so on.

But working like this presents some challenges. DFID’s report From Best Practice to Best Fit, summarised in another post on this blog, notes that “While [development] programmes exhibiting best fit can readily be described at a conceptual level, they have proved rather harder to operationalise.”

Perhaps that’s partly a question of how long people have been trying. The tech industry operationalised software development to a best fit process (Agile), after years of failing to deliver on time or within budget, or even to deliver what the client actually wanted. Agile recognises that the client’s understanding of what they want emerges as the work progresses, and changes direction as a result of that understanding, and as a result of changing environmental (market) conditions during the work.

Software is much simpler than international development, but even so, it took the industry quite a few years to work out how to do it, and several different approaches have evolved under the same broad process. And despite Agile’s success, the transition to it is by no means complete, partly because of a reluctance to let go of deeply held ideas of control – a quick glance at the Agile Manifesto gives a sense of the letting-go required.

Use what we already know

Finally, it’s worth saying that adopting a complexity worldview doesn’t require a celebratory bonfire of the GANTT charts. Some situations respond well to command and control. Some things can be planned. Some can be predicted. At least for a little while!

For more information about Griff and the work that he does check out: www.griffgrifiths.co.uk 

A review and reflections on the ODI working paper: “From best practice to best fit: understanding wicked problems in international development.

 

As philosophers, neuroscientists, pop singers and marketeers have known for years, as human beings the things we notice most in the world around us, are the things already in our own heads and own worlds. So it seems as we at Wasafiri have become more interested in how to apply complex systems thinking to our work, suddenly complexity thinking seems to be everywhere.

While there is a lot of interest in complexity based approaches to development issues, most of this ‘interest’ has stayed at a fairly conceptual and theoretical level. Generally, because whilst the theory might make sense, the application has proved, well, complex.

The ODI, working with DFID, have published a working paper that attempts to confront this gap between theory and application. The paper, ‘From best practice to best fit’examines a number of case studies in using complex systems approaches to deal with ‘wicked problems’ and, whilst acknowledging the limits of seeking generalised lessons, they offer some general points. At 55 pages the paper is far from a quick read – so here is a bit of a premise based on my almost-quick read.

  • Wicked problems are juxtaposed with ‘tame problems’ – (they have a rather nice table comparing the two on page 2). The wicked problems are those where the problem is difficult to define, has many contributing factors, where the solutions are not singular and where there is no ‘end point’ for when the problem is solved. Rather, the aim if to make things ‘better’.
  • Development approaches have been dominated by the logical framework approach – which works well for t­­ame problems (where a linear relationship between problem-inputs-outputs-solution can be mapped), but for problems where there are complex sets of relationships, where the causes of the problem are multiple and where the end point is unclear, logical frameworks have proved limited and are highly criticised.
  • From best practice to best fit – best practice has become a dominant paradigm and assumes that what works in one setting can be applied to another. This approach allows the building of generic tool kits and supports the career paths of ‘technical experts’ (that last bit might be my view). By comparison, best fit emphasises adaptability to local and changing contexts, recognising the imperfect and unique starting point.

So how to work with wicked problems?

The paper cites a number of case studies which give more insight into the messy reality of the work done, in summary:

“dealing with such [wicked problems] requires us to recognise the systemic nature of the issue; understand the interactions among key actors and their behaviours; identify the dynamics and patterns of the issue; pinpoint the range of possible intervention points; work flexibly with a range of approaches; and adapt over time.”

Key specifics they offer include:

  • Use of systems mapping to explore the relationships between actors and make visible the different issues, policies, agencies etc. that impact on the ‘wicked problem’ being explored.
  • A portfolio approach using mapping to identify entry points to influence the problem and then launching multiple, small interventions which act on the problem in different ways.
  • Iteration and real time learning about the impact of interventions, using ongoing monitoring; and being willing to adapt, change and even abandon interventions that don’t seem to have the desired impact.
  • Shorter planning horizons in not expecting to lay out a 5 year plan and keep to it come what may; and rather, knowing “that complexity or wickedness in the environment needs to be respected and uncertainty navigated, not retreated from. This is a particular challenge to the dominance of well constructed business cases, budgets, plans and the optimism bias to which they lead.

Criticising logical frameworks is a well worn argument; and to be fair, for the right job they are still a good tool. However, finding viable alternatives has proved far from easy.

We have been experimenting for several years with developing ways to work with and not despite the complexity we find in our work. I think a key revelation for us is that the nature of the complexity we face is different. So, when working in conflict affected environments, or on countering violent extremism, the way the environment and context constantly changes and evolves make it a ‘wicked problem’ and real time research becomes very important. In agricultural development the context is often more stable, but the way the stakeholders –such as government, private sector and smallholders– interact with and impact on one another, is often underestimated and even ignored in the meta planning process. So stakeholder engagement platforms become fundamental to creating any change.

Ultimately, whilst we and many others will continue to experiment with systems thinking, complexity and wicked problem based approaches, it may well be that the more radical change is applying such thinking to the frameworks, TORs and M&E requirements that drive the funding of development programmes. Be it from NGOs, national donors, or international organisations, if we all want to see more varied and adaptable approaches to development, then we need more varied and adaptable approaches to commissioning and monitoring our work.