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?

  1. Thanks Dave, helpful piece. I’m reminded of a discussion hosted by CGD Europe a while back with Matt Andrews, Owen Barder, Duncan Green and others. I was struck at that meeting that we had a great discussion about engaging with a complex world, but managed to do so without using the language of “complex systems”. Duncan’s post on that meeting (with useful comments from others) is here I might temper my comment a bit now, but there’s lots of work that engages with complexity without using that vocabulary. Looking fwd to your reviews of the books you mention!


    1. Alan, I think that’s kind of my point about complexity-relevant-but-unaware practice. We’re using the concepts, just without the explicit language and frameworks. So what I’m wondering is whether there might be further gains to be had from more explicitly applying those concepts. And if so, what sort of institutional home could support that—with the analogies being 3ie, IPA, etc developing and spreading the practice of RCTs; ideas42 for behavioral economics; IDS for participatory methods; etc.

      Relatedly, I’m increasingly convinced that a given area of practice develops much more rapidly and deeply within a single organization that focuses intensively on it, as compared to the relatively slow progress made by cross/multi-organizational communities of practices.


  2. The simple answer to the simple question–are there organizations out there who translate complexity theory into actual practice?–is, as far as I can tell, “no.”

    I’m not aware of any organization that does this or is doing it *as an organization.” I am aware of a number of people in different organizations who do this, advance thinking around it, etc. (myself included: a significant part of my non-deployed day job is about developing practice based on complexity, and other theory).

    In my opinion, based on my own on-the-job experience, there are three main reasons why the theory/practice gap is so wide:

    1) There seems to be still a very wide socio-cultural (and often also structural) divide within the humanitarian industry between the “thinkers” and the “doers.” Obviously it’s not universal, without exception down to every person. But in general thinkers and the doers each revel in their status and take the other lightly. How many times have you heard something to the effect that, “I’m too busy actually running programmes in the field to be bothered with another 30-page paper on theory…”? Or, “We keep making the same dumb mistakes in the field, because all the cowboys won’t take two minutes to think about what they’re doing…”

    We need to the place where both are respected by the other, and where it is reasonable to expect both to be fluent in the other. That is, we have to get to the place where it is no longer acceptable for someone to build an entire career on being a “policy advisor” without also having some concrete knowledge of practice. And vice versa, too: We have to get to the place where it is no longer acceptable for someone to build a career in the field as a “doer” without also having solid command of theory.

    2) So far, not many have taken the time to sit down and spell out the practice implications of the theory. As in, concise, bullet points, that answer the question: “Tomorrow, when I sit down and turn on my computer to begin working at my job of managing a grant portfolio in COUNTRY X, what do I actually do differently?” On my first day on the job of applying complexity theory to my work of being, say, a country director or a zone manager or a WASH technician, what email should I send first? I think the past 10 years have pretty well shown that writing books and papers on complexity theory hasn’t had the effect of changing practice organically. At some point it has to be someone’s job to spell it out in almost excruciating operational detail. Who needs this? Why? What exactly do they do with it?

    3) Just the immense challenge of rolling out an mainstreaming anything across a global organization. It’s one thing to convince 1 or 2 or 10 people that something is important. It’s a whole other matter to convince an entire organization. And even if we do that, then rolling out standard practices, particularly in a global NGO where a great deal of emphasis is on local empowerment, trying to impose a way of thinking and working on a workforce (many of whom got into the business because they want to stand up to top-down imposition) is a truly immense and time-intensive undertaking.

    None of this is reason not to do it, but these are what I see as the core challenges.

    (of opinion, stated with the tone and assurance of fact)


    1. I agree with J. In addition to the reasons he listed, I was thinking about how life histories and narratives might help us dig a little better into understanding the transition from theory to practice, which identifies a number of other challenges / limitations (particularly the medium- and long-term unknowns). I used one life history example to explore what insight might be drawn: Might be of interest to some.


      1. Logan, thanks for the link to that post. Sorry that I had missed it before.

        If you’re not familiar with it, you should check out some of Danny Burns’ work on participatory systemic inquiry (PSI)—described in the Navigating Complexity book and elsewhere. One of the versions of the method he describes is “story-based PSI” which aligns well with what you’re describing.

    2. J, great three points. #1 and #3 are broader than complexity thinking, of course. They stand in the way of any theory-informed improvements in the sector’s practice.

      Your point #2 is the most interesting—not just that the specific tasks or approaches are unclear, but that there’s never been a person whose job it is to spell that point. However, I’m arguing that there’s a prior stage we haven’t yet reached. Even with the writing and thinking and the effort put in by “thinkers” and “doers” and those halfway between (people like yourself who think about complexity as one theory among others that influence your work), before someone can spell out the detail, there needs to be someone (a person, a team, etc) focused on muddling through and figuring those details out. I think you need that critical mass of a country team, division, whole organization, whatever to craft that, try it out, get it wrong, adapt it, try to sell it, tweak the message, adapt for a different problem, and so on—until eventually a practice emerges and then someone can write it down.

      Until someone is willing to take on that step (and someone is willing to fund it!), there won’t be a practice to document, share, institutionalize, etc. in your point #3. Interestingly, one of the authors of one of the books I wrote about (Stuart Worsley) has apparently moved from IDS to be Mercy Corps’ Ethiopia country director. Could be an interesting time for their work there…


  3. This is Stuart Worsley – co author with Danny Burns of Navigating Complexity in International Development. Right now, in Mercy Corps Ethiopia, we are installing a series of community engagement inquiry strands that will enable participation and learning within networks to shape programmatic action. In the spirit of Nurtured Emergent Development, we seek to foster social, economic and ecological resilience by ongoing action inquiry that helps pastoralists to evolve within a rapidly changing policy and climate space. The practices we describe in our book are practical and here I am working with my teams to install these across a range of geographies and sectors. In my experience, this approach has worked well in agriculture, education, water and sanitation, and policy. I am interested to rope in others to be part of this. If interested, please contact me at


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