Coming clash of ideas?

Looks like previous post on the development ideas hype cycle stirred some interest. There are still the “so what” questions — how individual actors should respond to the hype cycle, what systemic actions the sector could take to moderate the volatility of it, etc. — but I’ll leave those for another post in the (hopefully not too distant) future.

Meanwhile, I’ve been catching up on my blog reader backlog and came across a great Duncan Green post that’s relevant to the question of how ideas change the sector. Wrapping up a series of observations on the future of aid, Green notes the increasing role of complexity thinking in aid. But he foresees a coming conflict:

…currently, the operating model of aid funding and evaluation is highly linear – there seems to be every chance of a titanic intellectual clash between the results community and the complexity thinkers. My gut feeling is that the complexity people will lose, because the results people have the ears of the funders – it is therefore important that political scientists and others abandon any lofty ‘it’s all too complex, and measurement is futile’ attitudes, and start helping the results people move from a self-defeating insistence on attribution to a ‘plausible/good enough’ narrative of change. In terms of metrics, this means learning to ‘count what counts’ in terms of empowerment, agency, governance etc.

He’s written on this theme elsewhere, as have others. I agree that the results-focus and complexity-awareness camps have a fundamental (though ultimately productive) tension. The results-focus gets more traction with funders, especially in those sectors with large budgets and a focus on scalability/replicability (health, education, WASH, and so on). That gives the results agenda a lot of coverage and inertia.

However, on those issues that are increasingly seen as fundamental to long-term sustainable development (institutions, governance, peacebuilding, etc.) the complexity thinkers control the high ground. That’s not nothing.

In terms of the hype cycle, the two outlooks’ reconciliation (which Green describes in the second half of the excerpt) will provide them both with the route to the Plateau of Productivity. In another framing, we can think of this as the emergence of a new paradigm.

One thought on “Coming clash of ideas?

  1. Succinct description and good review of who holds which “cards” in the referenced debate. I would suggest, though, that Duncan is wrong about it being purely a question of learning to “count what counts”. While we can measure some of those areas – consensus across people around problems, priorities, and solutions, or different forms of social capital/relationships within a complex network – that doesn’t really resolve the difference in opinions between the two camps.

    It seems to me that the big challenge is more about the approach to counting. Whose perspectives are at the table, defining not only what we count, but why? The results-focus posits a sort of technical neutrality and universal focus on learning “what works” in a way that is absent power dynamics. But most complexity-aware approaches focus on gather different perspectives around topics such as what it means to “work” and for who – areas that are assumptions deeply embedded in the results agenda (works for donors, and those who they are beneficently assisting, according to their own aims and priorities). The synthesis of the two seems to me to involve using a results-based approach, but a much more open way of initially defining and updating the understanding of the problem, the solution, and whether/how it works. If played out, it would likely keep a lot of the existing results measurement methods, but would challenge the locus of decision-making over development. And that’s a much bigger hurdle, in my opinion, to cross to get to the plateau of productivity.

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