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Researcher calls for aid to embrace "chaos"

Syrian refugees, mostly Kurdish, recently arrived in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan pictured at a reception and registration area near the town of Faysh Khabur. Aid was handed out at the reception area by the UN, Iraqi Kurdish authorities a
(Younes Mohammed/Metrography)

For years, researcher and writer Ben Ramalingam has been worried about the state of the world in general and the state of aid and international development in particular. Now his new book, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, sets out his view that many of the things wrong with international aid are the result of thinking about the world in an outdated, mechanistic way - a mindset that cannot cope with the dynamic, complex problems seen today.

To be clear, Ramalingam is not condemning international aid as "chaotic" in the everyday sense of the word. He is using the word "chaos" as a scientific concept, drawn from complexity theory, which explores multifaceted, evolving systems. For him, the "edge of chaos" is actually a good place to be - neither totally chaotic nor too rigid or structured - making people grow and adapt in response to the shifting complexities of the real world.

He sees international development aid as still dominated by ways of thinking formed by the industrial revolution and its notion that mechanisms can produce predictable results if used correctly. This line of thinking holds that one can identify a problem and work on it in isolation while everything else around it remains stable.

Says Ramalingam, "There are a number of cognitive and operational biases in the way that foreign aid works that are increasingly at odds with the world we live and work in, and they continue to exert undue influence over what we do, how we do it, why we do it and how we report on it."

Ramalingam urges aid policymakers to use new ways of understanding the world by mapping networks, looking at the way systems self-organize, and using ideas like positive deviance and tipping points to facilitate beneficial change.

Instead of imposing predetermined solutions, Ramalingam likes the idea of giving situations a nudge in the right direction, and then allowing things to develop from there. He cites an experiment conducted in India, with what were termed 'Hole in the Wall' computers. These computers were installed on the street in slum areas, set up with an internet connection, and then left for local people to explore on their own. Local children taught themselves to use the computers, learned enough English to surf the internet, and organized themselves in groups, going from machine to machine and sharing ideas, "just like birds or insects flocking," said Sugata Mitra, who set up the scheme.

Ramalingam, chair of the Humanitarian Innovation Fund - which he co-founded - and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, describes how positive deviance can be harnessed to encourage people to find their own solutions.

Two American aid workers, with almost no budget, spent just two weeks in an impoverished Vietnamese village where many children were malnourished but some were fit and healthy. Village volunteers ranked the children by their nutritional status, and set about figuring out what the healthy children's parents - the positive deviants - were doing differently. When it was discovered these parents were adding small shrimps, crabs or snails to their children's rice porridge, and were washing their hands more often, these practices began to spread. The initiative is credited with eventually achieving a 65-80 percent reduction in malnutrition among a population of 2.2 million.

"Evolution doesn't happen because a bird suddenly moves from being a small wingless creature to being a flying creature. It moves to exploring the adjacent possibilities. What's the next step that can get you closer to where you want to go to?"

"I think it's about seeing where you are," Ramalingam said, "and seeing where the space of possibility is. Evolution doesn't happen because a bird suddenly moves from being a small wingless creature to being a flying creature. It moves to exploring the adjacent possibilities. What's the next step that can get you closer to where you want to go to? And that's what I think we need to be exploring."

Approaching the topic

Owen Barder, from the Center for Global Development, said the book should be read by anyone who thinks seriously about development and what can be done to accelerate it, and by anyone running aid programmes or projects. "I think it's pretty clear now," he said, "that development is an emergent property of a complex adaptive system."

Duncan Green, Oxfam's senior strategic advisor, agrees on the importance of these ideas, but worries that people working in international aid will be deterred by the whole idea of complexity theory.

He said, "I don't think that if I go into Oxfam and say, 'Hey guys, I'm here to talk about complex adaptive systems,' I'm going to have many people in the room. But if I say things like, 'How do you plan when you don't know what's going to happen? How do you campaign when you don't know what the solution is?' and then you get sensible discussions. And some of the best discussions on complexity have been when no one has used the word complexity."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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