Complexity in aid: An interview (by Ben Ramalingam) with Jaap Pels


Jaap Pels is a former colleague of mine and as he describes himself an ‘idea guru’.

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Jaap Pels (credit: Jaap Pels)

Pretentious you might think, but Jaap is close to his own mark, as he’s been one of the main sources of inspiration on KM for me and is a very thought-stimulating (and prolific) contributor on KM4Dev. In this interview, he reflects back on how complexity theory/ies contributes to global development (aid). These are very useful responses to a series of questions that Ben Ramalingam (author of the excellent ‘Aid on the edge of chaos‘ and serial blogger) shared with him when assembling thoughts for his book, back in 2010. This interview is shared here again as it never was publicly but Jaap, Ben and the KM for Development Journal senior editor Sarah Cummings (who will publish this interview in one of the journal issues later this year) seemed all happy or ok to see it shared here).

  • What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?
  • What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?
  • What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?
  • What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?
  • What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?
  • What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?
  • How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

What is your understanding of what complexity theory / complexity science means?

My understanding stems from my background and education. I studied molecular sciences, more specifically genetics, organic chemistry and fundamental physics. Apart from that I took courses in the philosophy of the natural sciences. Alpha still is envious of beta-methods… In that respect it is fun to read on the KM4Dev list about Popper, Kuhn, normal science, Kepler, Newton and Lorentz (the one from the butterfly effect). From oscillating chemical reactions / biological systems (heart rhythms), I learned that feedback loops lead to complex systems like lemming populations and birds flocking or systems tending to increasing entropy.

Also I attended a number of lectures (studium generale) in the nineties (yes, last century) on chaos in organizations, for example to understand when a business can grow etc. Also I read ‘Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid by Hofstadter and I attended a course in programming for artificial intelligence🙂. In organisations I always wondered why managers hired ‘types like themselves’ and found out about self-(re)-production, autopoiesis, self-organisation, emergence etc. as, in biology, viruses that self-assemble from components.

Over a long period I have read a broad spectrum of books related to organisations, how they function, how to lead them, how to improve them etc. All in all also a lot of airport literature (The world is flat, The tipping point, 10 ways to become a strong leader / rat etc.) but also just from the news, papers, Internet. Prigogine, Castells and Gray are my anchors when thinking about complexity and sciences, networks / societies and societies / enlightenment. And of course I must have been one of the first to subscribe to ‘Aid on the edge’ blog🙂. Recently ‘Why nations fail’ by  Acemoglu and Robinson colored my picture why aid works or not.

So for me complexity is a phenomenon, something we recognise when one boils water and the pattern suddenly gets chaotic, or as path dependence when that butterfly in Spain invokes a storm in the US (just an example), or as the black swan or as fractal pattern, or as anomaly in our mechanistic deterministic view – or better paradigm – we tend to approach reality and fail of course, just because that reality is not predictable; it is – although it seems sometimes – notSimcity. We measure and model the environment we live in and with just that measurement we interfere, we change reality. We theorized from telos (Gods will), to logos (mechanistic, Newton, Darwin and Weber), to chaos (Foucault, Gray, Lorentz).

Thus complexity science tries to develop understanding, theory (in the real Popper / Kuhn / Lakatos / Feyerabend / Marcuse / Freire and a whole bunch of bright heads, though more traditional), tools, research etc which results in a complexity community, a website, blogs,Cognitive Edge services etc. It is fun.

And that’s where my understanding comes from. Others stem from another habitat, perhaps a school of thinking and they will understand the c-science & theory different. I would be interested to know how North Korean people appreciate complexity. I would like to research if complexity is a Western thing; let us plot complexity-realm-hubs (people, schools, experiments etc.) on Google maps🙂

What in your view, is the potential value of complexity sciences / complexity theory for international aid problems, and for knowledge and learning efforts specifically?

International aid problems are many. And a lot of them will not benefit, rather use complexity as excuse where problems might be complicated. I mentioned paradigm just now and some aid people walk around with ‘pink glasses’ and for example in the water sector it is popular to advocate for a paradigm shift, close to the WASH sector that is done in SWITCH (integrated urban water management – where ‘integrated’ is one step away from complex) looking at a city as system and in Triple-S. Looking at, and thinking in systems relates to complexity; although as I mentioned most is complicated or political.

One international aid problem is purely economical: labour costs are much higher in the West than the to-be-developed world. Thinking along the lines of Thomas Friedman (the world is flat) all UN bodies should have their publications made in India / China etc. Money – country 0.7% GNP contribution to development; UN salaries, corruption, collecting it for disasters and then also processing it (Tsunami), accountability etc etc – is a central problem anyway. The NGO world is being MBA-ed because there is a volume of money to process and that is a problem too, because professionals do not like to be managed and managers give themselves a very nice salary (mimicking the banking world; where money flow spills are to be picked up).

By the way, these UN-ghetto’s, as I call them, the big hotels in Bamako where the aid persons sleep, eat and meet, are owned by Gaddafi’s son so aid money goes to a Swiss bank account.  A bigger problem – and Triple-S does an effort to tackle it – is the ‘project thinking’ in development aid which – at least in the WASH sector – resulted in failure to attain the MDGs in 2015. Triple-S does realize that the context for development aid is complex; reality is nonlinear with all the logical consequences as questioning the value of logframe planning, M&E, and indeed for knowledge and learning. One can lead a manager to information but one cannot make them think, so we have to take them along, create a history, co-create knowledge and learn; all within the human dimension, the human context.

Both knowledge and learning give rise to the object / subject discussion. We just had the KM4Dev discussion on the data-information-knowledge-wisdom continuum; how to get from one to the other is possible anyway given you need knowledge to get from data to information! A typical case of Occams razor (see a great post on Occam’s razor); the law of parsimony.  At KM4Dev we are in the middle of a debate on indigenous knowledge. Global warming, philanthro- capitalism, China’s’ interest in Africa, pressure on the Bretton Woods institutions teaches us change to be the only constant. And we – as humanity – better learn how to go about Change. To me sustainable development is exactly about learning and the human measure; learning does not happen overnight and the AHA-erlebnis is the exception.

So to recap, complexity science / theory teaches us to be modest, refrain from nation building and Desert storm actions. Further it tells me to include attention for knowledge and learning into every development aid effort right from the start because of path dependency …. learning happens on the fly; sorry Chris / Geoff🙂
PS Chris Collison and Geoff Parcell. wrote a book on KM called ‘Learning to fly’.

What do you see as the practical benefits of new conceptual and theoretical approaches for aid agency knowledge and learning issues? What examples come to mind?

I am optimistic about cross fertilisation and multi disciplinary team etc, because I think knowledge is a function of human interaction specifically by discourse and that discourse, discussion, dialogue will benefit from a flurry, a spectrum of views that need to align. And that points me at learning. Learning is far and foremost learning how to go about with each other, again rather in dialogue than battle. We have been suffering from top-down approaches – KM stems from organisational sciences rooted in Taylor-ism I think -, advocating for bottom-up and now perhaps mid-round. I think there is a broad consensus now that development has to emerge from the local habitat. Some people link that strongly to good governance or democracy – here again Popper pops up because he defended it (The Open Society and its Enemies) – but in the agricultural – and rural sectors supported self management seems key.

Here again we have to look closer to the agency we talk about. Complexity can easily become the next excuse for making the same mistakes, run for quick fixes and forget about maintenance, education, training, cooperation – btw, I rather speak of development cooperation than aid. Perhaps it is a simple as attention for learning post project and support emergence and that possibly does not result in the outcomes, outputs and impacts we write down in proposals.

How we run Aid organisations, leadership & management can learn a lot. Although very very scary, the best thing might be to hold on to letting go. Working in development has nothing to do with running a ‘beans in cans’ factory but I see many choose and copy just that model.

What might KM / Organisational learning practitioners need to do differently to realise the value and benefits of new theories and ideas more systematically?

UNESCO talks about life long learning. Google grants staff time for own journeys, non corporate planned activities, the Dutch started a development sector academy. What it all boils down to is to create the circumstances for learning to fly or even better learning to learn on the fly.

‘OL an sich’ is non-sense. People are able to learn and unlearn. Most KM / OL efforts start from ‘the organisation’ and that paradigm leads to administration, both on the primary level – what the organisation is on earth for; it’s raison d’être – and the secondary level – the pure admin stuff like time sheets, tariffs, budgets etc. The latter puts a hell of a burden (complicated, not complex!) on aid but my point is that KM and OL and sector learning etc. all mainly depend on the humans involved.

All UN orgs should realize that those internal CoPs have a high degree of belly button gazing. And I know it is scary to open up discussions because control is a major dimension of an organisation. At IRC we had the same discussion on some 60 Google groups we run. At first staff wanted them to be closed, now some of them open up a bit and non-staff can chip in. At KM4Dev gatherings I learn about UN-internal groups, but I am not allowed in where I – through tax – paid for it in the end: I do not get that.

Another one is knowledge transfer. Forget about it. Look at IKM-Emergent for example to read / learn about why that does not work. From complexity one can learn that leapfrogging is hardly possible because of path dependency. At IRC we work on hand washing programmes through schools; that took 15 to 20 years in my family to make my children wash their hands on appropriate moments. I can imagine children in Bolgatanga schools – which btw serve a ‘UN-meal’ a day – need that period too. And then you should know over there, no running water and / or functional toilet is around, anno 2010!!

An axiom by Stiglitz – scan globally adapt locally – applies here.  Practitioners need to stay on top of new ideas, reflect and demand time for that in their work. I use for example the Cynefin geography to figure out what kind of problem I have at hand, and most are (made) complicated and are not complex. In the simple / complicated realm issues like power, patronage, language, timing, information hoarding, corruption etc are far more prominent than for example strange attractors.

What are the toughest challenges to address in bringing new, complexity-oriented, perspective to knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector?

Definitely the existing Babel tower we have built to process the process. Then the three-month business horizon and other approaches that work for making money but cannot be ‘one-on-one-ed’ to shaping aid. Also popular books and gurus that abstract that complex reality into recipes are seriously damaging. Then trade barriers, brain drain, pigeon holding – selling old technology and old concepts plus coca-colonisation (exporting the West paradigm). Populist politicians with their silver bullets mostly boiling down to exclusion. In short perhaps our own denial of complexity🙂 and deterministic linear grasp of our future.

The world has been mapped physically – starting with Columbus and before probably also by the Chinese, Indians, Greeks etc. We mastered traveling almost everywhere up to outside our own planet’s habitat. Some countries are fully wired / networked. I can use mobile Internet in a lot of places in this world. Most – if not all – complexity goodies come from simulation, virtualisation, digital (!) networks – a woman friend told me all relationships are complicated … and not complex🙂

On learning humanity still tends to favour formal learning. That is something outside ourselves resulting in a certificate, an investment in oneself, a PhD. When I come to facilitate a workshop participants invite me to lecture – they even call me a lecturer – where I’d rather embark on a trip together. For years, in a former profession, I advised people in the Netherlands on their buying a health insurance. Most know nothing except the price, but that’s not the value. When teaching / learning people to consume you have to take the learning capacity into account and in due time a more complicated / elaborated / precise advice is possible.

I guess the 80-20 rule of thumb and 90-9-1 (CoP population) rules apply here too. Complexity is for a few; most knowledge and learning issues in the aid sector are down to earth about behaviour like sharing knowledge, informal learning, trial and error (mimicking and learning to ride a bike), capacities, power, language and access. Running an anti-AIDS campaign, set up schools / education, providing basic services, breaking down trade walls is complicated not complex; reality may be complex, the trade-offs of an intervention are complex – only explainable in hindsight, but most development is about continuous effort, about blood, sweat, inspiration and tears. It took the Dutch 400 years to master the water-flows a bit so why do we expect developing countries to master that before 2015?

What kinds of changes might need to happen in the aid sector more generally?

The sector encompasses lots of arenas and the sector is an industry too. Development is big business and I mentioned already the NGO’s being managed by managers not by development people. In itself a very natural process in money economies like we live in. Aid is a commodity. We think in targets (MDGs), clients (children, women, Zimbabwean), revenues (days not sick) etc where the reality is that 1 million fellow earthlings live from meal to meal. We Westerners even call that ‘making the case’! Small local NGO’s have to run as businesses too because of all the monitoring and evaluation and other constraints by donors. Donors should be held accountable for the projects they finance, the trade-offs that come with development.

What’s needed is space for people, communities, neighbourhoods, cities, provinces, nations, regions, continents to develop themselves, to learn, to (re) create knowledge. And we need the understanding that this goes beyond the length of a project, programme, or even a human lifetime. So, modesty, continuous support, long lasting relations (perhaps in networks), family-to-family support, focus on informal learning etc.

In our aid agencies we might need to break down the bureaucracies, turn away from global development goals and align on country scale, get all those NGOs to align. Govern-ability is a function of organisation size. Very black and white we have to smell each other to be able to learn together. BTW As humans we deny smell as means of communication but I do believe it is very very basic. If people do not know each other a bit better they are only able to exchange information. Still one of my hobby horses is of course to wifi countries (although that is difficult: see India / China and Google; Ethiopia on SMS / Skype etc etc) and all kinds of powers do not let information be free. And when connections are established you see development evolve; look at farmers, SMS advice, micro financing etc.

How optimistic are you that the changes described above will take place?

You ask me here to gaze in a Crystal ball. My simple view is ‘we are just too many on this planet’ or at least to much concentrated in wet deltas / cities (look at the disasters in Pakistan, China, Indonesia, USA etc). But now from a complexity perspective: change does not take place but we have to start it time and again; complex systems depend on their history and chaos does not, so if you do not want change to be chaotic, but on the edge of it, start making history🙂

As for priorities I hold on to Maslov; first get the basics right: shelter, health, food, education etc but not atomized. We have to help people with their livelihood. And money is never the solution (rather the source of problems and in fact money is information; what is your lifetime consuming value?). Neither knowledge by the way: look at all those African leaders educated in the West that turn out to become constitution changers robbing their own people. Although sometimes for a period a benevolent dictator is best for development.

On the other hand lots of keys are in the hands of the West: trade, patents, footprints (water, carbon, energy etc.), governance in the global institutions, neo-conservative lobbies, (geo) politics, occidentalism, military-industrial-complex (funny!), tribalism etc are all counterproductive to development.

But optimistic I am when I see the KM4Dev growing over 3500 members and all kinds of knowledge share fairs, cafés, learning events, Q&As, e-lists etc are organised. KM4Dev goes under the organisational radar and countries; it works along the personnel axis; the only way for learning I think. Also these global mega events with wine – dine / pecking order / courtesy shows also have useful side events, smaller workshops where people are given space and knowledge sharing and learning takes place.

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