Ben Ramalingam’s new book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, challenges development practitioners to step back and ask: “Is there a better way to deliver aid and humanitarian assistance?” My answer is simple — there has to be!
In more than 20 years working with researchers and development professionals around the world, I would say they typically share two characteristics: a commitment to improving the lives of the world’s poor, and frustration at how difficult it is to succeed.
I have often wondered the same: why is it so hard to learn from experience? The book gives some of the answers.
Ramalingam takes readers on a journey illustrated by development practice over the last 50 years. He uses stories, theory and popular culture to convince them of three things. Firstly, that the linear approach that is so prevalent in development practice (find the problem and then implement the solution) is generally the reason that progress is so difficult. Secondly, that the science of complexity can help to explain why traditional approaches have failed. And finally, that understanding complexity can reveal new solutions that are more likely to deliver real and sustainable results.
The arguments and examples are compelling. I saw parallels in my own career in research, starting from linear thinking (‘simplify the problem and you can find the solution’) to where I am now as director of the United Kingdom’s Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme, which applies systems analysis concepts and complexity science to development efforts.
“The development research community increasingly understands the benefits of systems-based approaches, but is finding it hard to communicate these to decision-makers, the general public and the media. Discovering how to solve that problem is the key to emerging from development chaos and building a better world for all.”
Paul van Gardingen, ESPA
The pace with which the global research community has picked up these ideas has been staggering, as is the scientific progress that has been made. Embracing complexity has started to make a real difference in various countries we work in. For example, a community of 3,000 people in Gazi Bay near Mombasa in Kenya has started to benefit from regular income from Mikoko Pamoja, a mangrove conservation and carbon offset project, which could only really move forward when researchers found a way to link their expertise in social, natural and political science. 
So returning to the question — “Is there a better way?” — I should change my answer to “Yes, and Aid on the Edge of Chaos will help to describe how”. The timing is also critical, as the world debates the post-2015 development agenda.
But it would be wrong to end a piece about complexity with such a simple answer. To paraphrase from the book, the challenge is that every answer to a complex problem usually ends up being a new complex problem itself. The development research community increasingly understands the benefits of systems-based approaches, but is finding it hard to communicate these to decision-makers, the general public and the media. Discovering how to solve that problem is the key to emerging from development chaos and building a better world for all.
Paul van Gardingen is director of ESPA, and UNESCO chair of International Development at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom. He can be contacted at [email protected]
Science must adapt too
Aid on the Edge of Chaos argues that the aid system needs drastic change and that science should be at the heart of any transformation.
However, it’s not only aid that is at a crossroads: the science community must also closely examine itself if it is to contribute to new ways of thinking and working in international development.
Science does provide some of the underpinning evidence, solutions, predictions, monitoring and evaluation that successful aid has depended on. The book’s take-home message isn’t that science has been ineffective, but that there could be many more successes if collaboration can be improved.
From a scientist’s perspective, there are four obstacles hindering the science and aid communities’ ability to advance the complexity or systems approaches that the book advocates.
First, the complex challenges that developing countries face need complex solutions that depend on knowledge drawn from a range of disciplines and stakeholders — working together, right from the start.
Truly multidisciplinary approaches are uncommon as they are unsupported and even hindered by national and global research architectures and funding mechanisms.
So while I agree with Paul van Gardingen that programmes such as ESPA are excellent examples, the transaction costs to establish them remain too high. In addition, many programmes badged as multidisciplinary are simply scientists working alongside — rather than with — each other, missing opportunities to learn from each other and change practice.
Second, we all talk about ‘user-led’ research, but often there is only token collaboration with end users, and developing country partners justifiably feel aggrieved. Capacity building, not only in universities, but also with policymakers, the private sector, NGOs and civil society, is an essential investment to advance the skills developing-country scientists require to engage with new ideas such as complex adaptive thinking.
Third, many funders and academics believe that international development offers few opportunities to deliver research of high quality and impact — the two qualities that attract funding and career progression. Rewards and incentives to encourage the best scientific minds to apply themselves to development and new ways of thinking will help advance the approaches Ramalingam advocates.
“Now is the time for scientists and research funders to step up and put their offer on the table — alongside the NGOs, financiers and politicians who are already discussing national and international goals and targets.”
Homi Kharas, UN High Level Panel on post-2015 development
Lastly, moving from theoretical approaches to practical applications requires the engagement of those with influence over aid’s future. UK research funders recently met Homi Kharas, the lead author of the report by the UN’s High Level Panel on post-2015 development, to discuss how this step might be taken. He said: “We know science is important, you don’t need to convince anyone. Now is the time for scientists and research funders to step up and put their offer on the table — alongside the NGOs, financiers and politicians who are already discussing national and international goals and targets.”
His advice echoes Ramalingam’s argument that science must be at the heart of development decision-making. The science community must now build on the exciting ideas and challenges the book describes.
Andrée Carter is director of the UK Collaborative on Development Sciences. She can be contacted at [email protected]
> Link to Aid on the Edge of Chaos