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.

22.9 million[1] people across Africa are living with HIV. The social stigma associated with HIV means that for many people living with HIV is not just about their health, but also about their livelihoods, their home, community and family. Reducing the social stigma of HIV supports those affected by HIV to gain work, earn a living, live with those they care about, talk about their status, access the care they need, and ultimately to live with HIV. In turn, this increases the willingness of others to get tested, to discuss HIV prevention and hence to tackle the spread of HIV.

Reducing social stigma is hard. In many communities, faith provides the backbone to people’s attitudes and behaviour and so faith leaders and faith communities have remarkable influence over beliefs around HIV. By refusing to acknowledge HIV or through messages linking HIV with morality, faith can drive stigma. Consequently CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) in partnership with GNP+ (Global Network of People living with HIV) created the ‘Stigma Reduction Initiative’. This programme was launched in Kenya, Ethiopia and Zambia and used a peer to peer approach, based on people living with HIV ‘surveying’ others also living with HIV about their own experiences of stigma, discrimination and faith. The findings from the surveys were then shared with faith leaders who were supported to develop action plans to reduce stigma and discrimination in their communities.

Katie Chalcraft of Wasafiri Consulting was asked to evaluate the impact of the Stigma Reduction Initiative. We found a notable improvement in the HIV-related knowledge, attitudes and practices of the faith leaders involved in the initiative in the 3 pilot regions. More specifically, among the people living with or affected by HIV involved in the survey in Adigrat (Ethiopia) and Ibenga (Zambia) there was a general decline in exclusion from from social, family and religious activities, and improvement in the psychosocial aspects of peoples quality of life and increased uptake of HIV testing in the target communities.

For more information about Katie Chalcraft and her work please visit her profile here

Lead for CAFOD on this work was Georgia Burford. To learn more about CAFOD and their work with faith communities and on stigma reduction visit here

The Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) is an inclusive, multi-stakeholder partnership to rapidly develop the region’s agricultural potential. To advance this pioneering effort, the SAGCOT Centre was formed to provide coordination and facilitation for the partnership. For a development initiative, the SAGCOT Centre has an unusual governance structure that ensures it is genuinely multi-stakeholder and inclusive of government, farmers organisations, companies, and donors. This important innovation has however presented problems for structuring donor finance. Multiple donors means multiple procurement requirements, plus SAGCOT Centre’s unique structure did not sit comfortably with establish protocol. The SAGCOT Centre’s work was severely hampered until structures could enable funding to flow.

The challenge was both technical and human. A technical solution was needed on how to structure parallel funding, whilst at the same time a relationship-driven process was required to encourage each institution to make some concessions to their established protocol in order adopt a common approach.

Wasafiri Consulting was hired by Grow Africa to support this process, both by facilitating a consensus and developing a technical solution. The SAGCOT Centre can now plan their finances with a degree of confidence.


In 2012 Somalia lay at a crossroads. Two decades of war had left the region devastated, bereft of a functional government and without even the most basic services such as schools or clinics, a society shattered by violent extremism and conflict between rival clans and warlords.

The year heralded great change. African Union forces regained control of the capital Mogadishu, driving out insurgents from strongholds across the south, laying the groundwork for a fragile transition to the country’s first democratically elected administration.

Yet, in one of the most volatile and dangerous regions on earth, progress remained precarious and expectations low. In a context such as this, how do you establish even the most basic conditions essential to peace and stability?

Wasafiri’s Director and lead of our Stabilisation & Conflict Practice Area, Hamish Wilson was deployed to the British Embassy in the newly created post of Senior Stabilisation Adviser in early 2012. His most pressing requirement was to help bolster the precious political and security gains being made in newly recaptured cities across Southern Somalia. The challenge was made even more daunting by severe constraints on access and with few partners willing to work in the most dangerous areas.

In response, Hamish established a dedicated cross-departmental Stabilisation Team supported by a flexible funding mechanism – an innovation in the British Government’s stabilisation efforts worldwide. The team built a portfolio that grew rapidly to USD17m worth of projects delivered across seven of the hardest to reach and most strategically important locations in the region, playing a key role in:

  • Reconstructing offices and community centres in each of Mogadishu’s 16 districts
  • Rebuilding bridges, roads, stadiums and street lighting in 5 newly ‘liberated’ cities
  • Recovering over 1000 bombs and explosives in Baidoa
  • Restoring five community radio stations
  • Training 500 women and young men in vocational skills
  • Rebuilding over 10 markets supporting hundreds of new jobs
  • Tackling conflicts between the 6 major clans of the Central Regions
  • Building the capacity of the Ministry of Interior, President & Prime Minister’s Offices

Few organisations have been able to move as quickly or as responsively to the ever-changing situation in Somalia. As a result, the British Government has helped lay the foundations for the effective delivery of longer-term recovery efforts vital to eventual peace and stability.

In keeping with the global shift towards recognising resilience as a vital component of humanitarian and development work, Christian Aid has embraced resilience-building as key to achieving its overall vision of eradicating worldwide poverty.

Enshrined in its 2012 Partnership for Change strategy as the power of individuals and communities to live with dignity, responding successfully to disasters, opportunities and risks they face, Christian Aid realised that significant changes were needed at an operational level to translate this concept of resilience into effective programming.

Wasafiri was called on to support Christian Aid in meeting this challenge by helping to plan and deliver a workshop in April 2013, bringing together programme staff from over 25 countries to share learning and best practice on resilience. Key lessons and actions were generated in the areas of integration, empowering analysis and planning, adapting Christian Aid’s Resilient Livelihoods Framework to context-specific risks, and measuring the effective performance of the Framework.

Armed with these invaluable insights, participants left the workshop committed and empowered to pioneer Christian Aid’s resilient livelihoods work in their day-to-day efforts to combat poverty around the world.

Click here for blogs, photos and videos from the workshop.

At the L’Aquila G8 Summit in 2009, African leaders called upon the international community to coordinate support for agriculture on the continent through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) as the leading African-owned initiative. They also called upon donors to do this in a manner embodying principles of aid effectiveness such as coordination, harmonisation, alignment and respect for country leadership.

At HQ level, this was to be achieved by donor agencies through CAADP’s Development Partners Task Team, which would provide a single point of contact for the AUC, NPCA and other African partners to communicate with the international community, and for donors to communicate in a consistent way with their field offices regarding how to advance support for CAADP.

Wasafiri was hired by 4 successive chairs of the task team to coordinate and support its activities, and over the course of 3 years, Wasafiri consultants provided much-valued continuity in managing the engagement of development partners with CAADP. Wasafiri was additionally charged with achieving the following key priorities for multi-stakeholder agreement in the context of CAADP:

  • Facilitating the Addis Consensus on Guidelines for Donor Support to CAADP at a country-level;Producing the Guidelines for Non-State Actor participation in CAADP;
  • Developing a CAADP Mutual Accountability Framework; and
  • Catalysing Grow Africa as the CAADP vehicle for generating private-sector investment.

The on-going alignment and commitment of donors has been key to enabling CAADP’s unprecedented progress in driving agricultural transformation on the continent, with CAADP held up as an international example of best practice for improved donor coordination. With Wasafiri’s support, the CAADP Development Partners Task Team has been the linchpin of working relationships between donors and African partners in advancing this historic progress.


Christian Aid’s recently launched global strategy, Partnership for Change, emphasizes that in order for Community Health and HIV programmes supported by the organisation to be more effective, they must move away from an exclusive focus on service delivery and directly address the systems and structures keeping people in poverty, a major barrier to accessing healthcare.

To assist in realising this goal, Wasafiri supported Christian Aid in designing and delivering a ‘Community Health for All’ workshop in Nairobi for relevant partner and programme staff, held in January 2013. The workshop agenda was framed around the three pillars of Christian Aid’s Community Health and HIV work, namely: ensuring sound health development approaches, equitable institutions and equitable social norms, which if addressed systematically, create an improved enabling environment for people to access health services.

The gathering provided those participating with an opportunity to explore what the shift in focus entailed by the new strategy means in practice for their current work, and what active steps to take to boost the performance of their programmes.

Partner and programme staff were equipped with concrete learnings and recommendations to help them apply the strategy in their own specific working contexts, so as to enable entire communities to exercise and claim their rights to essential health services.

Click here to visit blogs, photos, and videos from the workshop


With dramatic changes taking place in the nature of the HIV epidemic since the introduction of antiretroviral therapy, and consequent shifts in the global response to HIV (together with the onset of donor fatigue), Catholic aid agency CAFOD recognised the need to strengthen its HIV response in the global HIV hub of Southern Africa through a dedicated regional strategy.


Wasafiri has been instrumental in developing that strategy with CAFOD and its partners. As an initial step in this process, Wasafiri undertook a review in 2013 of CAFOD-funded HIV programmes run by 13 partners in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, formulating recommendations for ways to strengthen CAFOD’s HIV work in the region. Wasafiri also designed and facilitated a partner workshop in Zambia to validate the findings of the review, and was tasked with compiling the outcomes of the workshop and developing the regional strategy.

The strategy produced provides guidance to CAFOD staff and partners in their efforts to address the evolving challenge of HIV in Southern Africa by shaping CAFOD’s organisational and programmatic response to HIV in the region for the next three to five years.

Taking into account the intervening changes in the epidemic and the local contexts of the countries identified, the strategy outlines appropriate adaptations to programming and partner support to ensure the gains already made in Southern Africa in the fight against HIV are maintained and further advanced.

This is an historic time for the war ravaged country of Somalia. The comparatively smooth transition to a new government headed by ex-peace activist and educational campaigner turned president – the 57 year old Hasan Sheikh Mohamad – has generated a new wave of optimism for the region’s future. This buoyant mood builds upon the rapid progress being made in the fight against radical Islamic group Al Shabaab, who until late last year, held much of southern Somalia under its sway. Now, thanks to unprecedented regional military cooperation bringing together Ugandan, Burundian, Kenyan forces, with Ethiopian troops, Somalia’s iconic capital of Mogadishu has been reclaimed, and the prized southern port city of Kismayo has all but been recaptured. Al Shabaab are well and truly on the back foot, and their future looks bleak.

And Somalis are seizing the moment for themselves. Members of the diaspora are flooding back to the country from as far afield as Australia, Norway and the United States, bringing with them a spirited entrepreneurialism and cash. Capitalising on the growing stability, new enterprises are springing up across the battle scarred streets of Mogadishu. Freshly painted coffee shops, newly constructed hotels, and electronics stores laden with the newest appliances from Dubai all are materialising from the rubble that has defined the past 20 years.

Of course, much remains to be done to ensure this brief moment in time heralds a sustained recovery from a history bleached by entrenched conflict, crippling corruption, and oppressive regimes. Somalia has often been described as ‘the world’s most failed state’, a label which rightly angers many Somali’s nowdays. Yet there is no denying that the region remains dangerously fragile. The biggest risk is that this volatile time of political transition sparks more fracturing rather than unification, incites new conflict rather than peaceful settlement over timeworn issues.

The balance hangs in the hands of the Somalis themselves. Yet the regional powers have a critical role to play in ensuring their support is not driven by self-interest at the expense of wider stability. And the international community, in Somalia’s case a growing range of actors with increasingly diverse interests, must remain consistent and coherent in its support of the country’s rebirth.

My role as Senior Stabilisation Adviser for the British Office for Somalia, sees me heading a team at the sharp end of the international community’s assistance to the region. We are charged with working in areas newly ‘liberated’ by military forces, helping to restore stability, and create the conditions for longer term recovery.  It is certainly no easy task, yet the early signs of progress are appearing – we are supporting Somalis to establish local administrations, implement community security programmes and rebuild basic infrastructure like roads and markets.

Yet one-off stabilisation projects will only go part way to solve the problem. The real challenge in such a fragmented, fractured landscape, to Somalis and internationals alike, is to find new ways of forging concerted action. Action that brings together the Somali businessman from London keen to invest in his old neighbourhood, with the newly appointed District Governor, with a group of young unemployed men, with the women from the local market, with the head of the African Union military unit, alongside the police commissioner… to decide for themselves what the real problems are, and how they are going to solve them together.

Crack that, and the rubble of Somalia’s history may just be swept aside once and for all.