Could a new initiative on graduation from poverty help eliminate extreme poverty in Kenya?

I’m heading out to Nairobi from London to help evolve how efforts to reduce poverty in Kenya are done. In the international development sector, and in the business world, improving the incentives for a large number of organisations to work together, and helping leaders in those organisations navigate a complex landscape that works better for the whole, can add genuine value.

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.