Complexity and development: still more theory than practice?

Yesterday I gave a guest lecture to John Gershman’s politics of development course at NYU’s Wagner School (mostly MPA students). The topic: how the development sector puts complexity thinking into practice. Prepping and giving the lecture helped me put together some thoughts on how the topic has evolved since I took that very same course about six years ago.

In recent years, there have been at least three major books that address complexity in development work: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos (2013); Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development (2015); and Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity (2015). I’m currently working on reviews of the latter two, but in the meantime, I drew from all three for the lecture. As a simple indicator, that amount of literature on the topic suggests increasing interest and relevance.

All three books mix theoretical frameworks and practical cases. For the most part, the theory draws from fields outside aid/development work. That’s not surprising, given that complexity thinking has roots and applications across a wide range of disciplines: ecology, physics, mathematics, etc. Naturally, that thinking and the accompanying toolkit are way ahead of what the development sector puts to use. (Agent-based modeling, anyone?) I’ve heard more than one development professional express that it seems like the complexity concepts are still struggling to have a major impact on development practice.

However, I would argue that on the practice side, there’s actually quite a bit happening that aligns with complexity thinking but that isn’t put in those terms. You might call it complexity-relevant, though not complexity-aware, practice. That comes out in the books: e.g. Burns/Worsley use complexity to describe the effectiveness of community led total sanitation, even though that approach wasn’t designed as explicitly complexity-informed; same goes for the positive deviance approach, the history of which Ramalingam discusses in his book.

My lecture included case studies of projects that I’ve worked on directly, and I also touched on another project outside my own experience. Complexity thinking can help to explain the successes and struggles of these projects, even though few (if any) of the people working on the projects were thinking in those terms at the time. (The “Doing Development Differently” case studies are great examples of this.)

It seems that complexity theory and complexity practice are out of sync in the development sector: theory got out ahead with a boost from the unrelated disciplines where it first developed, but it turns out that practitioners are muddling their way to approaches that can be explained by the theory. Practitioners in the sector are simpy responding to the complexity they encounter in their work, even if they lack the analytical frameworks for it; they are also incorporating the complexity concepts that have made their way into popular intellectual culture (e.g. tipping points, feedback loops).

Complexity thinking has gotten its toeholds in development by explaining some of this complexity-relevant-but-unaware practice (both successes and failures). If there’s a next stage, it may be the explicit application of the theory to create new practice, or at least to significantly adapt current practice.

I suspect that requires an institutional home: a place where the practice can be developed intensively enough for it to evolve. Although a range of smart people work in this space, it seems like they do so from within larger institutions (donors, think tanks, NGOs, etc) that aren’t equipped to give it the focus needed.

Or maybe I’m wrong? Is there some organization or team out there explicitly translating this thinking into practice? And will I have something more concrete to share with the next crop of students who are subjected to my rambling thoughts?