The World Bank’s World Development Report 2015 opens with the tragic situation in West Africa and the international community’s failures to internalise learning from previous epi/pandemics such as AIDS and Swine Flu. The main body of this report explores how cognitive biases, behaviour and culture impact upon development, both within low- and middle-income countries and the organisations working in this space. It demonstrates that development is complex and messy, with “wicked problems” rearing their head at every twist and turn and presenting serious challenges to the dominant organisational culture in development. However the authors also stress that there is more scope to “nudge” longstanding patterns of behaviour in institutions than is often assumed.
This year has seen the development world take a big step in engaging with complexity science. In the wake of his book Aid on the Edge of Chaos, which thrust the complex realities of development into the limelight, Ben Ramalingam has worked with DFID to pilot new forms of programme management incorporating approaches and tools from complex systems analysis.
So going into 2015, there’s never been a better time to talk about complexity – even if it’s hard to discuss in a way that puts everyone on the same page. For example, there seems to be a difference between recognising the complexity of a development problem, and then using methods from academic complexity science to study this complexity. The scientists and “developmentistas” may appear to speak the same language of complexity whilst actually remaining on entirely different wavelengths. On the flip side, there may also be research and development programmes which completely dispense with the language of scientific complexity while adopting the kind of adaptive, reflective and flexible approach or worldview that complexity thinking encourages.
We’re therefore hoping to crowd-source some ideas from experts on complexity and development to help us better understand, and crucially to communicate, some of the basics around where complexity fits into development research. We need your input, so please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
So the first question to our loyal readers is…
Do you always need to use methods from complexity science to address complex realities in development?
Professor Chris Whitty was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department of Health in January 2016. He was appointed Deputy Government Chief Scientific Adviser in April 2017 for an interim period. Prof. Whitty also sits on the board of UKCDS.